By Payton North and Chris Putz
WESTFIELD – Last week Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announced efforts to bring broader internet access to the Commonwealth and touted the state’s partnership with Westfield Gas and Electric.
Polito said during a press conference that it’s “so important” for the people of the Commonwealth to have internet capabilities in their homes to access information to keep their families safe. Polito said when she and Baker came into office for the first time, over five years ago, “not every community had similar access to the internet.”
Polito said that in Massachusetts, 53 communities are underserved or unserved in their ability to access the internet through broadband. She noted that through the Last Mile Program 16,000 homes in the 53 communities gained access.
“That is so important when we’re asking people to access telehealth, or asking people to work from home,” or for students to access the internet for school, she said.
Polito said there are gaps in service across the state. In conjunction with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute with Mass Tech, Polito said they are working with state-owned networks to offer new WiFi hotspots to unserved municipalities.
The WiFi hotspots will be offered on a rolling basis to a high speed connection, free from any charge, at a public community institution, Polito said.
“Citizens who use these [hot spots] must follow social distancing,” Polito said, noting that the town will post clear signs to insure people are safe when accessing the hot spots.
Polito thanked Westfield Gas and Electric for being a “strategic partner” in bringing broadband to underserved communities. Westfield Gas and Electric are planning 14 of the new WiFi hotspots to come online to help in the area.
Westfield G&E is expected to launch new hot spots in Ashfield, Blandford, Becket, Charlemont, Chesterfield, Colrain, Cummington, Goshen, Heath, Leyden, New Salem, Washington, Wendell, and Windsor on a rolling basis over the coming weeks, according to company officials.
“We are going to be connecting people as fast as we can,” said Westfield Gas and Electric spokesperson Lisa Stowe.
Stowe admitted that while the coronavirus outbreak has slowed installations considerably, the company is working hard to do as much prep work as possible so that when operations resume fully in the coming weeks or months ahead they will bring more people online.
Currently, Westfield G&E offers Fiber internet to 75 percent of the Westfield community, as well as in the surrounding hill towns. Free public WiFi hot spots in the Whip City are located at Park Square Green and at Bullens Field.
On the gas and electric side of things, Westfield G&E continues to provide emergency services to its customers, all while strictly adhering to social distancing guidelines, according to Stowe. Terminations of services due to unpaid bills have also been suspended temporarily while “stay-at-home orders” remain in effect.
“We have the benefit of being a municipally-owned utility,” Stowe said. “We offer services that are lower than the state average and are able to provide support to folks receiving less of a paycheck than usual or have been laid off.”
Stowe also added: “We are all looking back to normal operations and appreciate the Westfield community during these (unprecedented) times.”