Block Island seeks partner for broadband network

Fri, 09/04/2015 - 7:30am

The Town of New Shoreham is preparing to “light the fiber” that will be installed as part of the Deepwater Wind Block Island Wind Farm project. Eight strands of fiber optic cable will be at the town’s disposal for technology purposes, aimed specifically at improving Block Island’s broadband network infrastructure, via the $107 million National Grid owned and operated transmission cable system after it is installed and the wind farm becomes operational in late 2016.

That news was announced at the Friday, Aug. 28 meeting between New Shoreham town officials and members of the state’s technology team, including Thom Guertin, Chief Digital Officer of the State of Rhode Island’s Office of Digital Excellence (ODE), Stuart Freiman, Program Director of Broadband Rhode Island (BRI), and Christopher Campbell, Principal Broadband Strategist for Tilson Technology. Also in attendance were New Shoreham Broadband Advisory Committee (BAC) members Bill McKernan, Andrew D’Uva, Lucinda Morrison and Gail Ballard Hall.

As a result of that meeting, the Town of New Shoreham is seeking potential partners to help develop and operate a broadband network system to service the island’s broadband needs. At the meeting, the Town Council, absent Councilor Chris Warfel, authorized Town Manager Nancy Dodge to sign a fiber use agreement with National Grid, as well as for Tilson Technology, the information technology company advising the town, to distribute an RFI (Request for Information) on behalf of the town to seek suitors for constructing the island’s broadband network.

There was applause from the assemblage each time that the motions were approved by the Town Council.

“Eight strands of fiber can power a very large city,” said Guertin, during his presentation at the meeting. “You’ve got plenty of capacity, and it will handle the full spectrum of transmissions. We could do it on half of that capacity easily, but we want the capability to grow down the road. I feel very confident that you’ve got the best possible scenario out of this process. This is a once-in-a-multigenerational opportunity to bring broadband out to the island.”

Guertin said the “term of the agreement is 20 years for just $20. There’s also a renewal in the agreement that happens 365 days before the end of the initial term. So at that point in time, the town and National Grid would have to determine if the agreement still makes sense,” or would need to be revised. “That’s 19 years down the road.” 

Playing devil’s advocate, First Warden Ken Lacoste asked Guertin what would happen if after 20 years neither side could come to an agreement upon entering the renewal stage.

“Two things,” replied Guertin. “Nothing precludes you from entering into discussions before 365 days from the end of the agreement. And you need to have a redundant (backup) system just in case.”

Guertin detailed the town’s maintenance of the fibers per the agreement and called the equipment “safe and robust.” He also said that the fiber would be installed as dark fiber, needing to be activated, or lit.

“When that fiber gets laid as part of the (National Grid) undersea cable, in late 2016, the town will have exclusive use of those eight strands of fiber, and figure out some arrangement to be able to light that fiber,” Guertin said.

Guertin noted that the Town of New Shoreham would not only be able to utilize the fiber “for Town Hall, public safety, and for the schools, but eventually for commercial and residential use.”

Attorney Alan Shoer, who was hired by the town to assist with negotiations with National Grid, explained that the proposed initial agreement called for the town to be provided with only four fiber optic strands. At the beginning of the negotiating process between Deepwater Wind, National Grid and the town, the agreement stipulated that “there would be a commitment from National Grid to provide the town with four strands of fiber optic cable at a price of a dollar per year,” said Shoer. 

The primary concern about National Grid was that “they’re not in the business of providing telecommunications services. They’re not like a Verizon. They’re not a COX Cable,” noted Shoer. “They provide electricity. That’s their business.”

“The trick with this agreement was that National Grid got very reluctant to really make a lot of commitments that we thought were necessary for the town’s benefit,” said Shoer. “National Grid wasn’t clear why the town would need eight fiber optic strands. That seemed like a lot to them.”

Shoer said that Town Manager Nancy Dodge “fought very hard” to get eight fiber optic strands included in the agreement, having the foresight that technology would evolve and expand in the future and require numerous uses for the town’s broadband infrastructure.

“It’s important to have the infrastructure in place to get the town through 15 or 20 years,” said Shoer. “So National Grid gave up on that point.”

Shoer also pointed out that National Grid wanted to stipulate that the fiber optics would only be designated for the town’s municipal use. “We told them that this was a huge opportunity for the town,” he said. “It only made sense if the town was able to provide internet capacity use to the island community. After a long war, a lot of back and forth, the town can subcontract with others, and use that fiber in any way that it sees fit.”

Shoer said that the town would be getting the same quality of service as Deepwater Wind. “We didn’t want the town to be treated as a second-class citizen. You should be reassured that you got the most value you can get out of this kind of a fiber optic contract,” said Shoer.

Second Warden Norris Pike raised concerns over a potential “worst case scenario” where a ship drags an anchor and causes a “catastrophic event” and “cuts the cable clean in half. Are we picking up the apportioned cost of repairing the cable itself, or just the fiber?” asked Pike.

“No. Just the fiber,” replied Guertin. 

“So we’d be paying for the time, and the splicing of the fiber,” said Lacoste.

“That’s right,” said Guertin.

Guertin said that the town should build a redundant system to back up the transmission cable system in case of emergency.

“The cable will be buried six feet under the seabed,” said Dodge, alluding to the improbability of catastrophic cable damage. “It’s not just laying at the bottom of the ocean.”

“It would have to be an extraordinary situation to cut through that cable,” said Guertin, echoing Dodge’s sentiments.

Freiman wanted it to be known that the cable being installed by National Grid will be a high quality cable. “In terms of the cable, when you’re thinking about the resiliency of the cable, I’m not sure if National Grid described how it’s structured, but essentially it’s the electrical cable, and right in the center of that cable the fibers run,” said Freiman. “So, not only is the fiber shielded in and of itself, but it’s not exposed on the outside. It’s protected. It’s a very high quality cable that you’re getting.”

Gail Ballard Hall, a BAC member, asked if “the maintenance of the cable would be National Grid’s responsibility, not the town’s responsibility.”

“National Grid is the owner of the cable,” said Shoer. “So they’re responsible for making sure that the cables are maintained.”

“In the very unlikely case that a fiber strand actually failed, would we get any spare strands as backup?” asked BAC Chair Bill McKernan.

“That is not in the agreement,” said Guertin. “Your eight fibers are designated specifically for your town’s use. You could run your broadband network on two strands.”

Shoer pointed out that there would be approximately 48 total strands of fiber included within the National Grid cable for a variety of purposes.

Shoer said that it was a “contentious point” with National Grid to designate eight fiber optic strands from the cable for the town’s broadband utilization. “But you’re going to have a lot of backup,” said Shoer.

“Could National Grid sell off distribution to some third party?” asked McKernan.  

“Yes. That’s the business right of National Grid,” said Shoer.

“Would we be protected within the agreement?” asked McKernan.

“Yes,” said Shoer. “This agreement will not terminate in the event that National Grid sells their business.” 

The RFI process

As for what potential partner would light the fiber, Christopher Campbell of Tilson Technology gave a PowerPoint presentation about the RFI process. The presentation included ownership and operating structures, requirements, and attracting respondents, among other things. The RFI will be sent out to respondents to see who is interested in partnering with the island to build the broadband network.

“You’re creating an open door, and the potential respondents have a choice about whether to respond or not,” said Campbell, who’s worked for 20 years in technology and community development. “I do expect respondents. There will be interest.”

Tilson Technology issued the RFI on Wednesday, Sept. 2, and responses from potential respondents are due back to the company on Oct. 28.

“Is that enough time?” asked Lacoste.

“I think it should be,” said Campbell. “There’s a fine balance between giving folks plenty of time to work on it, and making it short enough that they actually focus on it.”

“It’s not hard for me to imagine that Verizon Wireless would be the first one knocking down the door to try to protect their interests here on the island,” said Pike.

“There are a number of different organizations that can provide the service to the island,” said Campbell. “Yes, Verizon. COX is also in that business. Companies like Fibertech have regional networks. So, we believe that you have options.”

Reached after the meeting for comment, Verizon Media Relations spokesman Phil Santoro said, “We (Verizon) will review the RFI when it is issued.” 

At the conclusion of the meeting, Shoer, as well as BAC members Andrew D’Uva and Bill McKernan spoke with The Block Island Times

“The deal with National Grid and the town is an important milestone,” said Shoer. “This puts in place a once in a generation opportunity for the town to facilitate bringing broadband internet to the Island.” 

D’Uva said that “you can’t beat the value” of 20 years for $20. “I mean, what would it cost to run a telecommunications cable out here with all the rights of way?”

“Well, 15 or 20 years ago it was $20 million,” said McKernan. “Think what it would be today.”

“This is a win-win for everybody,” remarked D’Uva.

Following the meeting, Dodge and Pike escorted Shoer and the state’s technology team to the Southeast Lighthouse where they viewed the Block Island Wind Farm from the bluffs.

Dodge said that no future meeting date between the parties has been scheduled yet.