Gas & Electric granted $10.2M for hilltown broadband

Anthony “Tony” Contrino, Westfield Gas + Electric’s General Manager. (Photo submitted)

WESTFIELD – On Dec. 23, the Baker-Polito Administration announced that Westfield Gas & Electric (WG+E) has received a more than $10.2 million funding authorization from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to expand fiber-based broadband in 20 communities covering over 12,400 households in rural western Massachusetts.

This funding represents the results of last year’s Connect America Fund Phase II auction thanks to efforts undertaken by the Baker-Polito Administration, Westfield Gas + Electric, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, the Commonwealth’s congressional delegation, and state and local leaders.
WG+E will receive the funding over the next decade and then distribute the funds to the participating towns.
While the FCC requires a 25/3 Mbps download/upload speed, the participating towns are building networks that provide symmetrical 1 Gbps download/upload speeds. The CAF II auction is part of a broader effort by the FCC to close the digital divide in rural America.
The FCC $10.2M funding will be distributed to the hilltowns to offset a portion of their networks’ construction costs, according to a statement from WG+E General Manager Anthony Contrino, , who added that each town will determine specifically what portion of their build they choose to apply the funding toward. Currently, WG+E is working with the previously unserved communities of Blandford and Otis to build out their broadband network, among others. Both communities have also chosen Whip City Fiber as their Internet Service Provider.
Contrino said the potential for Whip City Fiber to provide internet service over several newly constructed hilltown networks can yield additional revenue streams which will be used to pay down WCF debt and fund incremental expansion within Westfield.
Regarding Westfield’s buildout, Contrino said at the start of this project, it was deemed most appropriate to use their limited funding to build out areas in Westfield with moderate construction costs, high customer interest, and with the greatest rate of return.
“Now that those borrowed funds have been spent, we wish to avoid additional borrowing and instead utilize WCF net revenues to fund additional expansion,” Contrino said.
He said marketing efforts are focusing on residents living in neighborhoods that already have WCF service available to them but have yet to request the service, providing the best near-term, economically sound opportunities for WCF to grow.
“Similar to our gas and electric businesses, Whip City Fiber is owned by the ratepayers of Westfield and we have a fiduciary responsibility to make solid business decisions about when and where to invest in network expansion,” Contrino said.
He said they expect to review their financial position over the next several months to determine when sufficient excess revenues can likely support additional growth into new Westfield neighborhoods.
“The Connect America Fund from the Federal Communications Commission has been a great help to communities like those here in western Massachusetts who are still at odds as to how to get broadband for their residents,” said Congressman Richard E. Neal. “Thanks to that funding and the on-the-ground work of Westfield Gas and Electric, residents will be able to reap the benefits.”

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