Report lays groundwork for hi-speed network

Fri, 03/02/2018 - 9:45am
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A final report on how to build high-speed internet service for what is being called a Community Anchor Institution network has been presented to the town by HealthConnect Networks, the company hired by the town to consult on the project.

The goals of this smaller project are to “Build and implement a Town-owned broadband fiber network on Block Island to provide service to the Block Island School, Island Free Library, Block Island Health Services, public safety facilities (police, fire, and rescue), and Town Hall.” The island’s main connection to the smaller network would be located at Town Hall, while the report recommends the building of a “mainland fiber connection from the subsea cable terminus in Narragansett to a location suitable for a service provider connection.” That suitable location will be Dillon’s Corner in Narragansett, where the mainland substation for the Wind Farm is now located.

The next step will be to issue a Request for Proposals for the project no later than Feb. 28 and, upon return after a 30-day response period, the town would evaluate. The timeline calls for contracts to be signed in April, and that all details on those signed contracts would be “in hand” no later than early May. 

HealthConnect has proposed three options for the network, which includes combinations of wired and wireless connections, that can also be incorporated into the larger project that is intended to provide high-speed internet to the entire island. 

While the timeline has been set, Town Finance Director Amy Land, who has been helping to spearhead the project through its various hurdles, told the Broadband Committee on Feb. 22 that the schedule is a “very tight timeframe with many specific details. In no way is this getting easier.” 

Land also said the “other critical point to decide on is how we fund it.” It appears the School, the Library, and the Medical Center will self-fund each of their individual connections, but one of the reasons for the tight timeframe Land alluded to was to get the project in the pipeline so that subsidies from Universal Service Administrative, Inc. may become available. USAC is a not-for-profit identified by the Federal Communications Commission to administer funds to urban and rural areas that are in need of high-speed internet connectivity. 

However, if the self-funding institutions and the USAC funding do not cover the entire cost of the CAI network “and there is a need for additional funding, we have the opportunity to ask that question at the Financial Town Meeting,” said Land. The FTM will be held on Monday, May 7.

According to an update provided to Town Manager Ed Roberge on Feb. 21, the service provider for the network, once selected, will enter a subcontracting agreement with the town to provide internet service “over certain strands of the town-leased subsea cable.” The on-island network design calls for a 288-strand fiber along the CAI route, with patch panels and other technology that will allow the network to be expanded in the future. 

There are other questions that need to be answered, such as whether various equipment on the existing poles belonging to BIPCo and Verizon will need to be moved to accommodate the new technology needed to connect the wireless network. 

When Island Free Library Director Kristin Baumann asked if five facilities are getting off the island grid would “free up bandwidth” for the remaining island residents and businesses, the short answer from Land was that it would not.

The contract with HealthConnects calls for 150 hours of work billed at $225 per hour, plus an additional eight hours of work to evaluate each vendor responding to the RFP. The final report does not include an estimate of the cost to connect the Community Anchor Institution network.

In the meantime, members of the Broadband Committee have been speaking to representatives in other communities that have faced the same issue. Member Kathy Szabo spoke to a resident of Islesboro, Maine, a small island with about 675 year-round residents. Szabo said that Islesboro installed an all-fiber network at a cost of about $3.8 million, with the owner of the house paying for the connection, or “drop,” that directly connected their home or business to the network. The island installed 46 miles of fiber, said Szabo.

The discussion about Block Island’s needs is also taking place at the same time when international telecommunications companies gather at the Mobile World Forum in Barcelona to discuss the next phase of telecommunications technology. On the horizon — perhaps by 2019 — is what is known as 5G, or the fifth generation, of service. The Wall Street Journal described the goal of the technology as “cable-quality broadband linking billions of gadgets over the air.” The Wall Street Journal further described 5G technology as something designed to “boost bandwidth, allowing cellphone users to download data at a gigabyte per second or more, a speed comparable with the top-tier internet packages that cable companies offer today.”

According to the article, Verizon — which is the primary carrier on Block Island, and which also co-owns most of the island’s utility poles — plans to offer its 5G services in Sacramento, California, and then test in 11 other American cities. “True mobile service remains a few years down the road,” the article stated.

Some have asked why Block Island doesn’t wait for 5G technology, but former Broadband Committee Chair Bill McKernan said that ‘5G won’t be on the island for several years.”

“We’ll get 5G out here when they’re installing the first 7G on the mainland,” said Facilities Manager Sam Bird, somewhat dryly.

The town’s IT specialist, Michele Spero, also added, referring to the facilities included in the CAI network and their need for high-speed internet, “what they need it for, they need it for now.”