Broadband Committee compares other projects

Fri, 04/13/2018 - 9:15am
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The members of the New Shoreham Broadband Committee hope to soon schedule a public discussion with representatives from other small towns that have recently installed a high speed internet system much like the project proposed for Block Island.

The members of the committee have been talking to people in such owns as Petersham, New Hampshire and Greenfield, Mass., to get a better sense of what the challenges were when they installed their high speed internet access systems. 

The committee hopes to hold a town forum sometime in the near future. 

Chair Lucinda Morrison said she spoke to a representative in Petersham. That project involved connecting 358 paid customers — about 75 percent of all households in the town — and installing 45 miles of fiber. It has been an ongoing project for the past eight years, Morrison said, with about a year to go.

The town received about $500,000 in startup funds, with the entire project costing between $2.5 million and $3 million. Morrison noted that about 85 percent of all land in Petersham is conserved property. The capacity of the network is quite small at 50 megabytes. 

Member Ray Torrey said he has been speaking with a person from Westfield, Mass. While Block Island has been exploring a combination of wireless and fiber technology to wire the entire island, Torrey said that Westfield opted for an all-fiber network so that each home connected to the network is hard-wired.

In his report on the broadband network in Greenfield, Mass., member Steve Record wrote that city officials there had repeatedly asked “its phone and cable companies to invest in broadband infrastructure upgrades and service expansion, to no avail. As a result, business opportunities were lost.”

In the same way that Block Island hopes to install high speed internet for a group of what are known as Community Anchor Institutions, Record said that in Greenfield a “pilot project launched in 2015 offering free service in the central downtown area provided a testbed for competing equipment manufacturers and also gave insight to usage patterns.” In April 2016, Record wrote in his report, the “town council voted to borrow $5 million to establish the telecommunications system, to be paid from revenue provided by users of the services.”

That service launched in July 2016 and by March 2017 “half of the buildout of the fiber optic core network was essentially complete, and the non-profit, city-owned corporation formed to undertake the project said that the installation was “way under budget.” In December 2017, the coverage area was extended to cover an additional 1,000 homes, but Record said the city was keeping the total number of homes in the network confidential.

There was some discussion among the members of perhaps adding wireless to the Old Harbor and downtown areas at the same time as the town anchor institutions — which include Town Hall, the Block Island School, the Island Free Library, the Medical Center, and the New Shoreham Police Department.

“Can we do the anchor institutions and then add in a couple of things in town, or is that two different projects?” asked member Kristine Monje.

“It’s not that it can’t be done, but we’d have to look at the parameters of the project,” said Town Finance Director Amy Land, who is an advisor to the Broadband group. “The hope is that our bigger project is not so far behind. We’ll keep this in our back pocket if things aren’t moving forward as we hope.” 

There was some other discussion of setting up wi-fi hotspots in such areas as Mansion Beach, where people would pay for the service. 

One last remaining issue for this phase of the broadband process is finalizing an amount for installing broadband for the community anchor institutions. This number has to be sent to the Town Council no later than April 18 due to the fact that the final broadband question will be included on the warrant presented to taxpayers at the Financial Town Meeting on May 7. 

Even though three of the anchor institutions have said they can provide some funding for installing the broadband, Land said that additional funds are going to be needed to complete the project.

The final bonding amount will be discussed at a special meeting at 3 p.m. at Town Hall on Tuesday, April 17.