WEST SPRINGFIELD — Town officials expect more than half of West Side households to sign up for fiber-optic internet service, and for the town-owned utility to break even in 2026.

Many customers have already signed up, particularly in the pilot neighborhood where service will start this year, said Stephanie Straitiff, the town’s chief technology officer, at the Feb. 5 meeting of the Town Council. While the town waits for permission from Verizon and Eversource, which own the utility poles, to let them string the actual fiber-optic lines, it has already begun the “make-ready” applications for poles elsewhere in town.

“It will be fully complete by September of this year,” Straitiff said, referring to the pilot neighborhood. “We continue to work on the fiber network design of the whole town, and continue to move forward with the rest of the pole applications, as we realize that that process is really long. The goal is to build the fiber network as quickly as possible.”

The network will be owned by West Springfield and operated by Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas & Electric, the municipally owned utility company in Westfield. Whip City will offer 1 gigabit internet service for $74.95 per month, and internet phone service for $19.95 per month.

The Town Council approved the partnership with Whip City Fiber in June 2021, and the town began filing applications for space on utility poles in November 2021. It was expected at the time that the network would be operating by now, but the make-ready process has taken longer than anticipated.

Building the pilot neighborhood network, which will serve certain streets in the Tatham and Mittineague areas, was funded by a $2.5 million bond approved by the Town Council in October 2021, and by American Rescue Plan Act funds — federal coronavirus pandemic relief grants — to build a fiber hut, a small building at Mittineague Park housing network equipment.

The pilot phase covers four “fiber service areas.” Altogether, the town has been divided into 59 fiber service areas, with about 250 potential customers each. In addition to the pilot area, Whip City Fiber expects to expand the network to two more areas this year, then about 13 per year until the whole town is covered.

Westfield Gas & Electric General Manager Tom Flaherty said Whip City Fiber will eventually need three fiber huts to serve the whole town. The other two will be built on Piper Road, one near the intersection with Birnie Avenue and one in the former teen center next to West Springfield High School.

The two Piper Road fiber huts would be built as part of an $11 million phase 2 construction bond Straitiff plans to ask from the Town Council this spring. That phase would also include engineering, make-ready work and construction of parts of the network. Another $11 million bond would fund phase 3, building more of the network in 2026 and 2027. The final phase of construction would require a $4.5 million bond.

At first, because of construction costs, the system will operate at a loss. Straitiff told councilors she expects revenues of about $1 million in 2024, but a net loss of $690,587 with operating costs and debt service factored in. Projected losses are even higher in 2025, but turn to profits in 2026 as more customers are able to sign up and pay their monthly fees. At full buildout in 2029, revenues would be nearly $5 million and annual profits would be $1.3 million. In addition to paying off the bonds, those figures include the fees and operating costs the town will pay to Whip City — about $2.5 million annually at full buildout.

“We, as a city, we own the infrastructure, but we’re paying Westfield Gas & Electric for services, customer support, billing, all those things, so they’re taking a portion of that money,” Straitiff said. “The average revenue we’re expecting to see per customer, per month, is just over $48.”

By the time the whole network is built, Straitiff said, the town expects a 55% “take rate,” or 7,755 total customers. The service will be available both to residential households and to commercial properties.

Flaherty said small businesses will be able to pay rates similar to the advertised residential rate, but larger businesses will have to negotiate a larger monthly rate. He said the largest customers could pay $600 to $700 per month.

Flaherty said as the network is built in each neighborhood, Whip City Fiber will string fiber-optic lines into each subscribing house without charging a separate connection fee. Those who wish to express interest in receiving Whip City Fiber service can sign up at whipcityfiber.com/west-side, and the utility will contact them when it’s getting ready to start service in their area.

He said the fiber-optic cables will be strung alongside the existing power and telephone lines. In neighborhoods with underground utilities, fiber cables will run underground. Each existing pole will require a make-ready application to the company that owns it. Poles in West Springfield south of Amostown Road and Dewey Street are generally owned by Verizon, and north of those streets they are generally owned by Eversource.

mballway@thereminder.com | + posts