A visit to Westfield’s Whip City Fiber

Three of us visited Whip City Fiber in Westfield last Wednesday. Rich Carnall, Whip City’s Senior IT Fiber Architect, gave us a tour of their facilities on Turnpike Industrial Road and answered our questions. Subscribers can get 1 gigabit per second fiber access for about $70/month.

Westfield has been incrementally deploying its network across Westfield, concentrating on residential areas. In Westfield, it turns out that it’s cheaper to deploy in residential areas first. This is because there are fewer issues stringing the cable into these areas, as there is plenty of room on the telephone polls for their cable. Deployment costs can go up significantly if the telephone polls are “full”. In this case it often means putting in a higher telephone polls, which can be very expensive.

In general there needs to be at least one foot of space between sets of cables on a poll, and there must be a four-foot clearance between the electrical cables at the top of the poll and other sets of cables beneath it. Consequently, Westfield’s downtown area is likely to be one of the last areas to get service. However, deployment is on schedule and sign up rates are matching expectations, so the project looks to be proving to be financially viable. They hope to use their success to convince the City of Westfield to fund the next stage of their operation.

We took a tour of their warehouse, which is also used by Whip City to maintain the city’s gas and electrical network. We saw huge reels of fiber optic cable, each cable containing hundreds of fiber optical strands. Each reel contained about three miles of cable. Westfield Gas & Electric is busy providing a community network not just to Westfield, but to the hilltowns. If you see some thick cables on the telephone polls around Route 9 going toward the hilltowns, it is likely cable they are deploying.

We asked Rich about what such a system might cost in Northampton with about 30,000 people and 10,000 homes. He emphasized an engineering study was needed, but he expected a ballpark figure would be $10M – $15M. A lot depends on areas of Northampton where telephone cables may already be at capacity. In general a cost of $60K per “road mile” provides a reasonable estimate. A road mile is any mile along a road that would have fiber optic cable on its telephone polls.

On Wednesday we will have a virtual meeting with the city manager of Sanford, Maine to learn their experiences. Sanford also has Comcast providing service to their city. We’ll learn what lessons they have experienced too.

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