Broadband project coming into focus

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 5:30pm
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In a manner not unlike watching a photograph slowly come into focus and emerge with more detail and clarity, the members of the Block Island Broadband Committee are setting aside some ancillary tasks while putting the primary pieces together to get the project on the ballot for the Financial Town Meeting in May.

Project managers Amy Land and Michelle Spero first met with the team put together by Sertex, the company that will be charged with designing and installing the internet network. It was an introductory meeting with the vendors, one that Spero and Land said went very well.

“The team Sertext has put together is exceptionally capable and will be a cohesive team and help us work through the details of the project,” said Spero, who is also the town’s IT specialist. Spero said the initial talks were particularly productive given that no one, as of yet, knows how much the island-wide internet project will cost, and also given the fact that the contract will not be awarded to Sertex unless it is approved at the Financial Town Meeting.

“We went through all the sections of their proposal, all their electronics, and the transport to the mainland,” said Spero. She said that Sertex had gathered “all the team players” for the meeting. “This is a team that will be able to work collaboratively,” said Spero. “It was very encouraging for the first meeting.”

“My goal was seeing how everyone in the room worked together,” said Land. She said the group was familiar with installing municipal networks. “They had all the right questions and concerns and suggestions about the network.” Land said the meeting inspired her. “I walked out of there with a fresh initiative. Okay! Let’s do this!”

Land said there is not another meeting scheduled with the vendors and wouldn’t be until the project is voted and approved. “It’s really in our court now,” said Land.

Among the things that Land, Spero and the team are setting aside are two issues in particular: the wi-fi component and the question of how to price connecting hotels, inns, and marinas that could possibly re-sell the service to their customers.

Land said the group needs to “put our effort into the fiber backbone and we’ll pick up the wi-fi when we have a little bit more momentum.”

“If there is going to be a bond issue, the price of the wi-fi would not be included?” asked board member Ray Torrey.

“We don’t have an answer for that at this time,” said Land. She added: “I get that this is frustrating. It’s frustrating for me and I trust Michelle and Sam,” referencing committee member Sam Bird. “We have this growing list of things we can’t think about at this time. One is wi-fi and how we want to best service the hospitality entities.” Land was referring to hotels, inns, marinas and other entities that will be reselling their broadband services to customers. “That’s in a separate bucket,” Land said.

Committee Chair Lucinda Morrison asked if the fiber optic cables could be installed and buried at the same time the Block Island Water Company installs a new water main on Payne Road and High Street. This $2.3 million project will be voted on at a special Financial Town Meeting on March 23.

“I’m totally with you on that,” said Bird. “But I don’t see how that is going to happen.”

“There is support for that in this room,” said Land.

“Do you think the committee should lobby for it?” asked Spero. It was suggested that the committee approach the Water Commission to see if the fiber optic cables could be buried when the Water Company installs the new water main. There is no date set for that project as of yet.

The group then went through a series of possible pricing structures for installing high-speed network connections to individual parcels or homes. There were one-time, monthly or annual cost structures, with Land pointing out that the numbers used in the scenarios were not the actual numbers. The members of the committee were given the task of taking the various scenarios home to study and return with some ideas.

The last thing Land wanted to stress at the meeting was the answer to the biggest question looming over the whole project: how much is it going to cost?

“The only time that is going to be important is for the town warrant,” Land said. “In reality, it will be paid for in a variety of different ways.” She added: “The most important cost is what people are going to pay for out-of-pocket” to install the service into their homes and businesses.

“If you think of this as something you need to move forward in your life, it’s just something you’ll pay for,” said committee member Kristine Monje.

Member Steve Record asked if there were any grant monies available to help defray costs, and Land said that was something that should be researched.

The next meeting to go over cost scenarios is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 5 at 3 p.m. at Town Hall.