Broadband consultant costs warrant question

As $125,000 expenditure
Fri, 04/13/2018 - 9:15am

The $125,000 cost of hiring a consultant to evaluate the RFPs submitted by contractors to design and install high speed internet service for an island-wide broadband network will be put to taxpayers at the annual Financial Town Meeting on May 7.

At the Town Council’s work session on April 4, Town Finance Director Amy Land, who serves as an advisor to the Broadband Committee, recommended authorizing up to $125,000 for the hiring of technical expertise to draft, issue, and evaluate the responses to a Request for Proposals, and, if necessary, facilitate contract negotiations for the design, construction, implementation, operation, and maintenance of an island-wide broadband network.

“This would be for the initial step to a larger build,” said Land during the meeting. She noted that the town received one request for proposal for building the Community Anchor Institution network. The goal of the CAI broadband network is to link the Block Island School, Block Island Medical Center, Island Free Library, Town Hall and the Police Station to fiber optics embedded in National Grid’s transmission cable by September of 2018.

Councilor Martha Ball asked Land where the $125,000 would come from. Land said language in the warrant will note the town’s “authority to borrow, or to use some reserves at the discretion of the Council at direction of the finance director. That allows us the flexibility to — assuming we move forward with the larger project — roll that money into the total construction cost, or expense it.”

“You know how passionate I am about an island-wide broadband network,” said Councilor Sven Risom. “Why do you recommend that we do this as a warrant question, versus including it in the budget?”

“Three reasons,” said Land. “One is because we were still formulating this program as the budget was being developed. Two is — I think it’s important to keep coming back to the public and giving them the opportunity to discuss the island-wide project, because there’s been sensitivity around it. Dialogue in this case is a good thing. And the third is timing. With authorization we can execute this on May 8, instead of July 1 (as would be required per the FY 2019 budget process).”

Risom said the town doesn’t know what the cost of the island-wide project will be. “Are we begging for speculation from an $8 million or $9 million high number to something much lower?” he asked. On Jan. 18, 2017, the Block Island community noted its objection to a costly $8.3 million fiber-only proposal made by Portland, Maine-based Tilson Technology. 

“I just worry that this will be seen as a referendum in part on an island-wide broadband network,” said Risom, noting that the town “doesn’t have a lot of time to educate the public about the project, because we don’t know what the solution is going to be.”

“I think it’s our job to inform them,” said Land. “They don’t have to decide whether to commit to that. What we’re deciding is — giving us the opportunity to go out and find the best solution and bring it back. They don’t have to commit on executing, until they see what we come back with.”

Land added: “The point is: it’s outside the scope of the committee to be designing this network. That’s something we came to the conclusion on.”

As for a potential solution, Land said the committee has an idea of what it’s looking for in an island-wide broadband network. “We know it’s going to be somewhere between a fixed fiber, and a hybrid spectrum,” she said.

Kristine Monje, a member of the Broadband Committee echoed Land‘s sentiments, said, “We think this is the best way to go about it.” Monje noted that committee has met weekly over the past year and heard a variety of different expert proposals regarding building a broadband network. “Our expertise is limited in that we know enough to know what we don’t know. So it’s best to put this out there to people who do know.”