SOUTHWICK — After several months of work, the town’s High Speed Internet Committee has finalized the first “make ready work” contract needed to move the town’s broadband fiber network project forward.

Select Board Chair Douglas Moglin, who also chairs the network committee, said he hopes to be able to sign the contract with Whip City Fiber during the first full week of May.

In January, Whip City Fiber, subsidiary of Westfield Gas & Electric, was chosen unanimously by the committee to build the town’s broadband network, a service it has provided for many municipalities in the region. It is currently building a network for the town of West Springfield.

Since then, the committee has been working out the details of the contract. Moglin said Whip City Fiber provided a model contract, “but we made some changes, not significant, to meet our needs.”

Because WG&E operates as a department of the city of Westfield, the contract will take the form of an intermunicipal agreement, similar to Southwick’s connection to its neighbor city’s sewer network.

Executing the contract is the first step of a process that began in November 2022 when Town Meeting approved the first of two necessary votes to create a municipal light plant. The second vote was at the May 2023 Town Meeting.

As part of the contract, a website will be developed by Whip City Fiber for Southwick residents where they can register their address for the service. When that is up and running, likely in the next couple months, there will be a formal announcement, Moglin said. He said it is still too soon to guess the date when service will begin.

“We’re still a ways from there,” he said.

The design phase, Moglin said, will also identify the utility poles, most owned by Verizon and Eversource, where fiber-optic cable will be hung. While there are approximately 3,200 utility poles in town, all those won’t be needed.

Part of the contract with Whip City Fiber is that it will serve as the intermediary between the town and Eversource and Verizon to work out which poles.

Moglin said that the town was lucky that Verizon has more utility poles in town because Eversource has created challenges and delays in other communities, like West Springfield, providing access to its poles.

With the design in hand, each pole must be inspected to determine if there is room for fiber-optic cables, and what existing cables from other internet providers, like Comcast-Xfinity, will need to be moved to create space. Workers will also assess if the pole might need replacing because it’s not tall enough or too old, he said.

A preliminary map of the fiber service areas of town has been drafted, and a general guideline for which neighborhoods will be served first.

Moglin said right now, the homes along Powder Mill, Birchwood, and Fernwood Road would most likely be the first to get access to the service. Part of the reason is that when the Southwick Rail Trail was developed, Whip City Fiber laid what is called a “dark cable” along the trail — a fiber-optic line that has lain unused since then, but will be activated to serve as the backbone of the town’s fiber network.

Fiber-optic service in town will run through a network center known as a “hut.” Moglin described it as a building about the size of a shipping container. While the committee hasn’t settled on a final place for the hut, it will probably be in the property between Town Hall and the fire and police stations on Depot Street.

The hut will be “hardened” to prevent any disruptions, and that includes the physical structure of the facility of the hut and network.

“It’s game over if someone has access to the devices,” Moglin said.

In May, when Town Meeting approved the municipal light plant, it also put $900,000 of American Rescue Plan Act money toward the network. Moglin said the $900,000 and an additional $15,000 of ARPA funds previously approved by the Select Board will cover a $500,000 bond the town is required to post for the pole inventory and any pole work needed.

Town Meeting also authorized the Select Board to borrow up to $3 million pay for the network’s construction. The income from subscriptions, once the first neighborhoods begin service, will provide the funds needed to build out the rest of the network.

Moglin also said the town has partnered with the Southwick-Tolland-Granville Regional School District to apply for a state Community Compact IT Grant seeking $500,000. If awarded, the money will go towards construction of the network, but will also tie all the schools and town departments, like the library and DPW, into the network.

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