Internet Committee being restarted to respond to Whip City Fiber offer

SOUTHWICK — The town is bringing back its long-dormant High Speed Internet Committee, looking for new members as Southwick officials reconsider the idea of bringing Whip City Fiber into the community to compete with existing internet service providers.

Select Board member Douglas Moglin, who will be the chair of the ad-hoc advisory committee, said that the committee is now back up to five members, though more would be accepted if there is interest.

The committee last met a few years ago before the pandemic, with the intention of exploring whether to bring Whip City Fiber into Southwick to compete with Comcast, the only significant broadband ISP currently operating in town. Moglin said that process had “run out of steam” when it was revealed that it would cost the town $8 million.

The committee is being re-formed, however, because Whip City Fiber came back to the table with a new financial model that could make it easier for Southwick to pay for the project. The overall cost would likely be the same, but payments could be structured differently.

Moglin said that he would like to have a meeting in early 2022 with the committee and representatives from Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas & Electric, to see if more progress can be made this time around.

The committee would consider Whip City Fiber’s offer, as well as any offers from other interested internet providers, and provide a report to the Select Board, which would then have to vote on whether to accept a deal.

Moglin said that Comcast’s internet service in Southwick is actually quite good. When the previous committee was exploring the idea of bringing in competition, it put out a survey to Southwick residents asking about their thoughts on their current internet quality. For the most part, Moglin said, respondents were happy with their internet service itself, though Comcast’s prices were somewhat of a sore point.

“The grand picture is the cost. Comcast operates somewhat monopolistically,” said Moglin, “Their rates have been escalating.”

He said the survey showed that if there were a competitor to Comcast’s internet in Southwick, people would certainly consider making the switch. Moglin did have some praise for Comcast, however, saying the company was able to almost seamlessly adapt to the wildly changing internet habits of people across the country during the pandemic.

Should the Select Board vote to approve the Whip City Fiber plan as recommended by the committee, it would still take some time before everybody in Southwick could have the option to make the switch. The town would have to develop a schedule for building a new fiber-optic network. The entire town would not gain access to a new ISP all at once, as the network would have to be built neighborhood-by-neighborhood. Even more than the cost and time involved in stringing the lines, he said, negotiations with utility companies would mean a significant delay.

“The infrastructure isn’t the challenge, it’s getting the rights to the poles and the space on them,” said Moglin.

He said that private companies like Comcast may put up a fight when it comes to moving their cables up or down on utility poles, which could be necessary for the installation of infrastructure from a new internet company.

He also noted that the previous committee was composed entirely of people who had never served on a committee for the town of Southwick before.

“I was proud of the fact that every single person was brand-new to serving on a committee,” said Moglin.

He said there had been a diverse background of computer experts, people working in healthcare fields, and even a lawyer on the old committee. For the new committee, he said at least one applicant is a fiber engineer by trade, which should be a valuable addition to a committee exploring fiber internet options.

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