Broadband group leaving little to chance

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 6:45pm
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The first attempt to roll out an island-wide high speed internet network stalled almost as soon as it started in large part due to sticker shock. The project was tagged at about $8 million, and the general response from the island was, “No thanks.”

Today, a few years later, the Broadband Committee is aiming for a more fact-based approach to the project, which is in part why it has so far not even attempted to estimate what the island-wide network will cost or how long it will take to install.

It is also why the group has hired Mountain, Ltd., which dispersed five technicians to the island beginning Monday, Aug, 26, to do a thorough survey of all “aerial and underground electric and telecommunications utilities on Block Island,” according to information issued by the town. The technicians were expected to conclude their work on Friday, Aug. 30. Town Finance Director Amy Land said the survey was budgeted at $25,000 and would be taken from the $125,000 approved for consulting work on the project by town voters at the 2018 Financial Town Meeting.

“The field technicians will be examining and measuring utility poles, meter pedestals and the ‘drop’ from a pedestal to the primary structure on a property. In order to facilitate a well- designed and accurately priced network, it is important to have accurate and consistent data for all properties,” stated the town’s press release.

The news of the survey was first announced at the Broadband Committee’s meeting on Thursday, Aug. 22, at which representatives from the firm that is writing the RFP for possible vendors continued their process of gathering information for the Request for Proposals.

At that meeting, resident Peter Emanuel asked more than once about how the rough terrain of Block Island might impact the installation of broadband connections to the more than 1,700 structures on the island. “The terrain here is challenging,” he said.

“I just want to reiterate that we are in a different place when it comes to our knowledge,” said Land, who has been advising the Broadband Committee. “Assumptions have been replaced by facts. A lot has been refined since that earlier work.”

Land went on to say that “New Shoreham, at our advice, decided to do a pre-engineering study and go to every pole, every structure.”

“It’s a big job,” said Emanuel. “That’s detailed beyond anything I could have imagined.”

Emanuel asked if there was an estimated time for installation at some of the more out-of-the-way places on Block Island.

“We will rely on the vendors to tell us,” said Jim Rogers, president of Mission Broadband, which is putting together the vendor RFP.  “What we’re doing is trying to come up with a design that will work, what it will cost, and how long it will take to do that.”

The RFP is scheduled to be issued on Monday, Sept. 16 and returned on Oct. 7. Land said, “We would not be shocked if a vendor came back saying they need a little more time to respond.”

“We recognize that this is an aggressive timeline,” said the town’s IT specialist Michele Spero.

No award date has been set.

At the meeting on Aug, 22, Rogers and Mission Broadband Vice President John Dougherty reviewed information and conclusions they had formed based on interviews and responses received from residents during a previous open house held in July.

Primary among the concerns heard from residents was the “constant struggle to live, work, and do business on the island due to lack of adequate and reliable broadband access on the island.” The members of the Broadband Committee in attendance, Ray Torrey, Lucinda Morrison, and Kristine Monje, all agreed that this was the primary motivating factor in building the island-wide broadband network. The benefits of building a high-speed network, according to Mission Broadband, included “improved opportunity for education, tele-health, cost efficiency, business expansion, and economic development benefits. Additional benefits include entertainment, and individual communications.”

Rogers said that the network will be designed in such a way to add other components as the island’s needs evolve.