Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E) Sets Broadband Pace for Western Massachusetts

The electric provider offers new fiber-based broadband and economic development opportunities for underserved residents and businesses. It could serve as a model for other nonurban areas across the U.S.

Westfield, Massachusetts, has long been known as Whip City, a name it acquired when it became the prominent center of the buggy whip industry during the 19th century. Today, the city in the western part of the state is becoming the hub for fiber-based broadband because its municipal utility, Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E), is building a network for residents and businesses.

Through Whip City Fiber, WG+E offers gigabit internet service delivered directly across a fiber optic network to homes and businesses in the city of Westfield. Similar to other utilities, the journey to becoming a fiber broadband company began in the 1990s when it used fiber to implement a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) network to automate utility services. The utility drew on that experience to launch Whip City Fiber in 2015.

WG+E received permission from the Westfield City Council in 2017 to petition for a $15 million bond to fund the rollout of fiber infrastructure that would cover 70 percent of the city.

Tom Flaherty Sr.

Tom Flaherty Sr., general manager of WG+E and Whip City Fiber, says the impetus for the fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network was driven by the fact that the city could not get decent service from the local cable provider.

“The incumbent cable operator’s coax system was unreliable,” he says. “I was working remotely with a 250 Mbps connection, and I would get no more than 10 Mbps if I was lucky.”

Nearby towns, which consist of mountainous regions, also needed more broadband options. They had little choice other than dial-up or, if they were lucky, low-speed copper-based DSL or satellite.

“A couple of nearby communities reached out to us and asked what we were doing in Westfield,” Flaherty says. “By then, we were the experts because we had a year under our belts. Being a municipal utility, we said, ‘We’re here to help.’”

It was clear that a large area of Massachusetts was underserved, so a top priority was building a backbone network through a partnership with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), whose mission is to make affordable, high-speed internet available to all homes, businesses, schools, libraries, medical facilities, government offices and other public places across Massachusetts. MBI works closely with the governor’s administration, the state legislature, municipalities, broadband service providers and other key stakeholders to bridge the digital divide in the state.

“At the time, the state wanted to bring the middle mile out through the [MBI’s] State Broadband Initiative Program,” Flaherty says. “They wanted to leave it at that and see if Spectrum/Charter or Comcast would pick it up.”

Ongoing Expansion

Whip City Fiber provided service to more than 70 percent of the Westfield community by the end of 2018. In 2022, it added 1,500 new service locations to the Westfield network, including upper Montgomery Road in Wyben; Russell Road near the Tekoa Country Club; areas around Orange, Meadow, and Franklin Streets; and the Hampton Ponds area.

Having completed a two-year build, the service provider plans to bring fiber broadband service to 12 new service areas in Westfield over the next several months. Construction began in the summer of 2022 and will continue through winter 2023.

Whip City Fiber now spans more than 152 miles of network and delivers symmetrical, 1 Gbps broadband. By 2025, it expects to provide broadband internet service to all of Westfield and expand speeds to 10 Gbps.

“As of today, we have built the Whip City Fiber FTTH network to more than 80 percent of our city, but we know there’s more work to do,” Flaherty said in a video about the buildout plan.

By 2025, Whip City Fiber expects to provide broadband internet service to all Westfield and expand rates to 10 Gbps.

Communities Pick Up

The success of the Westfield network positioned Whip City Fiber as a leader among surrounding communities in 2018.

Whip City Fiber became a network project manager to 19 Western Berkshire Mountains region municipalities that wanted to replicate the WG+E fiber network. These communities, which own and fund the networks, ranged in size from 200 homes to 3,000 homes in Becket, Massachusetts.

WG+E assisted the towns in building networks and performing other roles, such as managing projects and ensuring the networks function. The utility also provides billing, customer service and remote troubleshooting of customer routers.

“In the end, it worked out for those communities and is now working out for us,” Flaherty says. “We picked up almost 8,000 customers and are the internet service provider operator for all 19 of these communities plus Westfield.”

In addition, the 20 communities applied for the second installment of the FCC Connect America Fund (CAF-II). They secured a $10 million grant, which will start being paid out this year.

“The CAF-II funding is another way for these communities to pay off their debt,” Flaherty says.

In partnership with the MBI, WG+E works with communities including Rowe, Charlemont, Heath and Lydon in a geo cluster to ensure network reliability and redundancy if storms hit.

“This provides another level of reliability these towns need,” Flaherty says. “There are no cell signals in these towns, so they rely on the FTTH network as their primary mode of communication.”

WG+E’s Fiber Network Creates Economic Impact

WG+E’s Whip City Fiber has fast become a critical economic enabler for Westfield, Massachusetts. A recent study by Futuriom Research, sponsored by OFS, showed that the community realized more than $88 million annually in job-related benefits from installing fiber broadband.

Several local businesses lease dark fiber from Whip City for their operations, including medical facilities, a regional bank, and a local manufacturing firm with multiple sites in the area. The service provider generates between $2 million to $4 million a year in revenue, which is invested in expanding the network and delivering broadband to more city residents.

Navigating Make-Ready

The biggest challenge WG+E initially faced as it started to build out fiber in Westfield and the surrounding towns was navigating the utility make-ready.

Make-ready is the process of preparing a utility pole to receive a new fiber attachment. It must be completed when a provider expands fiber service to a new geographical area.

Because local governments, electric companies, telephone companies or various entities own utility poles, cooperation with a pole owner is necessary for a new provider laying fiber to add anything new to a certain pole.

WG+E found working with the local incumbent telco during the make-ready process challenging. “Verizon was difficult to work with because the state had no control over [Verizon],” Flaherty says. “The upside was that National Grid and Eversource stepped up.”

Flaherty added that the utility received support from former Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. “The good part about this administration was it never gave up,” he says.  

Comcast and Spectrum built out four to five communities, and WG+E completed all but one in one last town, whose underground conduit collapsed so it could not push the fiber through.

Flaherty says this community “will get done this spring, so all communities we’re responsible for will be built out.”

WG+E helped MBI reduce make-ready costs. Under MBI’s Last Mile Program, the state invested more than $57 million to provide residents in 53 north-central and western Massachusetts towns.

“The total make-ready cost was $20 million when the project first came out, which was broken down to $1 million for each community,” Flaherty says.  

WG+E carefully analyzed the utility poles by hiring retired line workers as project managers. “These former line workers went out to these towns and looked at the make-ready work and found that some poles did not need to be replaced,” Flaherty says. “We saved about $3 million, which is real money – and another benefit we provided in partnering with these communities.”

Leveraging Utility Experience

An electric and gas utility, WG+E has an advantage in that it can utilize its own utility experience and infrastructure. It has bucket trucks to perform installation and necessary work in the communities it serves. It also has emergency contracts with outside crews.

“The upside of our partnerships with these communities is that we have a $3 million billing system, the collections capability and technical staff,” Flaherty says. “We have efficiencies of scale and can help them pay off debt, hopefully turn a profit, and have some nontax revenue come into their communities.”

Today, the utility is in the process of signing 10-year contracts with the 19 communities. This will help it set up the infrastructure and budget it needs long-term.

Like other companies, WG+E continues to try to mitigate supply-chain issues. For example, on the electric side, the company ordered a bucket truck that cost $190,000. This exact truck, which still needs to be delivered, now costs $330,000. “We have to plan accordingly to get all our equipment,” Flaherty says.

WG+E continues to attract new talent to Whip City Fiber. For instance, the provider picked up employees from local incumbent Comcast.

It will also have electrical line workers hang fiber on poles. However, when a 144-count fiber needs to be spliced, a fiber tech will be on the splice trailer. “Whip City Fiber has transferred some employees from different divisions, and some have become apprentice line workers,” Flaherty says.

Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s Last Mile Infrastructure Program Enhances State Broadband Availability

The Massachusetts Last Mile Program is making strides. Spearheaded by former Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito’s administration, the program has delivered broadband services to about 26,000 premises, including households and small businesses, in 53 north-central and western Massachusetts towns. As of December 2022, 46 of the 53 Last Mile Program towns had completed projects that are “fully operational” (delivering high-speed connectivity to at least 96 percent of premises within a community). The remaining communities have “partially operational” networks and additional customer connections that are ongoing or in final stages of construction.

During an event held in December, the outgoing Baker-Polito administration detailed its strategy to leverage more than $350 million in anticipated state and federal funding to address digital equity and broadband infrastructure gaps that exist statewide, an effort that will build on the success and lessons learned from the Last Mile Program and initial COVID-19 response. The Last Mile Program was made possible through a partnership among state government, municipalities, private providers, utilities and construction contractors. Massachusetts has invested more than $57 million in direct state grants through the Last Mile Program, which supported several key network buildouts:

  • Municipally owned networks, including in Ashfield, that were aided by WG+E
  • Private provider-led projects were identified through public procurements launched by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, including the Broadband Extension Program for nine “partially served” towns and the Flexible Grant Program. Comcast, Charter, Fiber Connect and WiValley received grants to complete projects in unserved and underserved communities.

Communities take Action

Whip City Fiber has begun working with multiple nearby communities seeking to improve their broadband situations. Nearby West Springfield was in the same boat Westfield was a decade ago – it wasn’t getting good services from the incumbent provider.

After signing a 10-year contract, WG+E is getting its make-ready estimates back. Flaherty says construction in West Springfield will begin this year. “We’ll grow out from there,” he adds.

In addition, the utility began working with Southwick and Hampden, which voted to have it become its municipal light plant (MLP).

For a Massachusetts town to become a fiber broadband player, it must become an MLP under Chapter 164 (https://malegislature.gov/laws/generallaws/parti/titlexxii/chapter164). “There’s a whole overreaching process to how towns can get into a business operation or [an] enterprise fund, so all of them become municipal light plants, even though they provide fiber capabilities,” Flaherty says.  

In other communities, such as West Springfield, becoming a fiber provider required two votes from the city council and a public vote this past November to become an MLP.  

Incumbents Shrug

As WG+E creates new fiber networks and becomes an increasingly formidable challenger to the established incumbent providers, a question takes shape: Do the incumbents care?

Since signing up for Whip City Fiber service, Flaherty says, he gets fliers from the local cable provider, Verizon, asking him to return as a customer. But beyond that minimal advertising, “for the most part, [Verizon] has not done much,” Flaherty comments. “It might do more when West Springfield goes live.”

Verizon also has not tried to upgrade its facilities. “Verizon had been out there with phone service,” Flaherty says. “It had been going to wireless, but there have been no infrastructure improvements on its network side.”

Raising Home Values

Besides offering benefits for businesses and existing residents, the presence of fiber raises the home values in the 19 hill towns Whip City Fiber serves. As more fiber has been built out, Westfield and other towns have become attractive places for people leaving New York and other big cities.

Consider the town of Becket, one of the area’s largest communities. Traditionally, 60 to 70 percent of the community consisted of second homes.

“People from New York City or the suburbs would go to the Berkshires for the weekend,” Flaherty says. “What happened with COVID-19 is they all left because now there is technology here that allows them to operate and work remotely full time.”

Broadband is only part of attracting new residents to the area. Those from New York City find the housing more affordable. “People are flipping to coming here full-time versus living in the city full-time,” Flaherty says. “Some of the houses in the area are incredible, but they may cost only $500,000 versus $2 million to $3 million [in the city].”

A New Blueprint

Whip City Fiber is making an impact. By working with partner communities, WG+E was able to get more money to pay for project management costs so it could quickly build out and turn a profit in Westfield.

The fiber provider’s take rate is about 55 percent of the passings, exceeding its projection of 25 to 30 percent to break even. “We’re making money and expanding out,” Flaherty says. “We’ll be at 100 percent passings by 2025 in Westfield, which will be reasonable growth.”

These communities were previously far behind in technology, and their advancement could be a blueprint for other parts of the country.

“Governor Baker talked about how the rest of the country is using Massachusetts as a plan,” Flaherty says. “All these communities are now in the forefront while others have the old infrastructure.”  


Sean Buckley

Sean Buckley is the editor-in-chief of Broadband Communities. You can contact him at sean@bbcmag.com.


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