Discussions begin on island-wide highspeed network

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 9:00am

The company that will craft the request for proposals document for the vendor that will eventually design and install the island-wide broadband network is treading very softly in tricky waters in order to get it right.

The President and Vice President of that company crafting the RFP, Mission Broadband, held two sessions on Monday, July 22, to elicit feedback from residents on what services they feel should be included in the high speed network.

Mission Broadband also performed the same duties for the buildout of the Community Anchor Institution network that went online earlier this year.

“We’ll help you make an RFP so that Block Island will have better internet access,” said company president Jim Rogers to the small crowd attending the first session.

The sessions lasted more than five hours, and, stripping away all the many details in the answers people offered when describing what they felt was needed in the island-wide network, the primary answer was having an internet speed comparable to the mainland.

“One that works,” said resident Bill Penn.

“Robust enough to accommodate all the things that are required to live in the modern world,” said resident Dennis Shepherd.

The most problematic solution was the answer to what people felt was an acceptable period for the internet service to be down before it went back online. That answer is dependent on ferry service, particularly in the winter. If the boats aren’t running, then the repair time might take longer than people would like.

But Rogers said that in the RFP prepared for the CAI network, “we asked for pretty aggressive repair times,” which he expected to do in the new RFP.

The one thing Rogers and company Vice President James Doherty were not ready to talk about was cost. “We don’t know how much it will cost or where the money is coming from,” he said. Funding of the island-wide network will ultimately go before island voters for approval.

The first meeting on Monday morning was held to get feedback from the members of the Block Island Broadband Committee, which has been meeting for the past several years to keep the internet issue on track.

When asked what they were primarily looking for in internet service, member Kristine Monje said, “sustainability. Whatever we build should be able to be built upon and have a long life.”

Member Ray Torrey said that the internet system itself should be a mix of fiber optics and wireless technologies.

When asked if the internet service should include voice technologies, member Steve Record said that component was “reasonably important. We have an aging infrastructure that Verizon would prefer not to maintain.” (Rogers noted that the internet service would be separate from cell phone service.) Others said the internet system should be designed in such a way that would allow additional services to be added later.

Rogers said that there was a very real risk to adding voice technologies to the internet package. If enough people signed up for the voice technologies package and dropped Verizon as their carrier, Verizon could potentially petition the state Public Utilities Commission to ask that it be no longer required to service Block Island.

“Verizon could say we don’t want to do 9-1-1 anymore. You must do it,” said Rogers.

Asked if traditional cable TV services should also be included in the internet design, most members felt that it ought to be made available later, after the initial internet package goes online.

Seasonal resident Peter Emanuel said that “people want choices. If you don’t build in the option now, I won’t be around in 10 years to enjoy internet cable.”

Torrey said including more options in the internet package may make the RFP more attractive to vendors, but Rogers said that he was skeptical that adding more options would be more appealing.

“I think you’d have plenty of companies that would say I’ll build you internet, but in the big scheme of the industry, voice is hard. TV is hard, but internet is easy,” said Rogers. “I’m happy to add it in, but I don’t think anybody would respond.”

Rogers also said that internet services that provide what he called “triple play action” — internet, TV, and voice — is “very limited. It’s a new phenomenon that little cities and towns are getting that triple play action. “

Monje said the infrastructure should be designed “so that we could eventually build something like that in.”

Rogers said that the four strands of fiber optic cable included in the undersea cable attached to the wind farm is “enough to do anything you want.” Rogers then related a fact. He said that all of the internet traffic in the city of Boston — every business, home, school, hospital, etc. — was serviced by four strands of fiber optic cable, the same number that Block Island has to serve all its needs. (National Grid included eight strands of fiber optic cables dedicated for island use. Rogers said that four are now in use for the Community Anchor Institution network.)

Other topics included the impact the technology would have on the aesthetics of the island, whether high speed internet would have a positive impact on the island, whether different areas of the island should have differing speeds, and whether speed capacity should be increased in the summer when there are more people here and decreased in the winter.

Rogers and Doherty also heard stories about how people wait for certain times of day to upload documents because they know island-wide use will be less, and of having to go off-island completely to do certain internet-based tasks.

“It rises to a whole new level of how bad it is,” said Rogers. “I have a hard time understanding that some people don’t want improved internet.”

Members of the Broadband Committee and other residents also agreed that the community needed to be educated on just what high-speed internet service will offer before the matter goes to a public vote.

During a discussion on whether tiered services should be offered to island residents — packages that offer different levels of bandwidth — New Shoreham IT Specialist Michelle Spero reminded those in attendance that “even the low tier would feel like the space shuttle compared to the bicycle you’re riding now.”

Anyone with suggestions or questions about the island-wide network can send them to: broadband@new-shoreham.com.