Broadband Committee: Public outreach is key

Fri, 05/26/2017 - 10:30am
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The newly-appointed members of the Broadband Committee hope that a series of community outreach programs will help convince island residents that fiber optic connectivity is not only a good idea, but should be taxpayer-funded. 

Resident Bill McKernan, who was appointed to the Committee, along with four others, by the Town Council last week, gave a presentation to the members of the Block Island Residents Association on Saturday, May 20. The broadband initiative sputtered earlier this year when the Council pulled the plug on it after there was some question on the $8.3 million pricetag. 

McKernan said the new Committee was operating on the idea that island residents were supportive of “the concept” of the broadband initiative, and that educating the public on its details will engender even more support. 

“We get to start all over again, in a way. You really have to get community buy-in on this,” McKernan said, adding that now that the Committee was town-appointed it had to post meeting agendas according to the law and abide by the provisions of the state Open Meetings Act. The other members of the Committee are Chamber of Commerce President Kathy Szabo, School Principal Kristine Monje, real estate agent Gail Ballard Hall, and businesswoman Lucinda Morrison.

McKernan presented an outline to the BIRA members, and began by saying that the project needed to be taxpayer-funded because there were no grant monies available. His presentation stated that the pricetag would remain at $8.3 million. The fiber optics have a 20 to 40 year lifespan. 

“We can’t find any grant money here in Rhode Island — zero. It’s a shame,” said McKernan. According to his presentation, McKernan estimated that the per-home monthly cost would be $70 for one Gbps internet service and $25 for each additional phone line. Connecting to the service will be a one-time cost of $100. (For government facilities the cost may be different.) “The average household could save about $20 a month for phone and internet services while getting a higher quality service,” according to the report.

McKernan emphasized to the group that all of these costs were estimates only, and no provider was named in the report.

As for its need on the island, McKernan said one of the first things he did was to tour the school, and he found its internet capabilities lacking.

“I couldn’t believe how short-changed the school is,” he said. “There are tests the students have to take online and the school gets a special waiver to take the tests on paper.”

“Other islands have used a combination of fiber optics and wireless,” said BIRA President Bill Penn.

“In wireless, things are changing so fast you have to upgrade your system,” said member Donna Corey. McKernan also said there was an effort to not have tall towers on the island that might impact peoples’ viewsheds.

Mckernan said the project’s cost needed to be socialized among island residents because, according to his handout:

- Major vendors are not interested in investing in Block Island;

- Cell and satellite are expensive, unreliable in bad weather, and get congested in peak use times;

- Leverage the $175 million mainland cable to the island’s advantag

- Direct connection to fiber;

- The town will operate the system for the public’s benefit.

The group also discussed the value of high-speed internet in terms of the advantages it has for streaming services, which McKernan said is happening now and will be for some time.

“Virtually unlimited capacity means services, such as TV broadcast, movie streaming, work at home, voiceover internet protocol, school assignments at home with no practical limits. Same for all business, governmental, and medical services,” according to McKernan’s report.

There are some obstacles. 

“All the homes on Great Road are (wired) underground and that could be really expensive” to connect to the system, said member Peter Saxon. 

McKernan said there were pricing issues, as well. “How do we charge The National Hotel, say, as opposed to small retail shops. These are the things we have to work out,” he said.

Saxon suggested wiring one building first, such as the Block Island School, to garner some positive publicity for the project. 

“Anyone who gets it will say how great it is. You’ll get huge publicity,” said Saxon. “Do the school as a demonstration project.” 

McKernan thought that was an option, but re-emphasized that public information sessions were the key to success.