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After decades of frustration, Block Island residents are finally getting access to affordable, next-generation broadband. The Island’s freshly-launched BroadbandBI fiber network is not only utterly transformative for island residents, it’s the first municipal owned and operated broadband network in Rhode Island history.
The first wave of island residents were able to sign up for service in April; the beginning of a staggered deployment rollout island leaders say is very much on schedule. It’s a monumental occasion for the 1,410 island residents spread across nearly ten square miles, who’ll be holding a June 5 event at the island’s Southeast Lighthouse to celebrate the long-awaited launch.
For years, island residents have had to make due with an underwhelming combination of spotty and aging Verizon DSL, or costly and heavily capped satellite broadband—assuming they could get broadband service at all. Private providers generally didn’t see investing in the island community as something worth their time or money.
Running 'A Bit Ahead'
Enter the Town of New Shoreham’s municipal broadband effort: an organic response to market failure, built on the backs of decades of frustration. A network that’s both on budget and on schedule, New Shoreham Land and Finance Director Amy Lewis told ILSR.
“We are running a bit ahead on FSA (fiber service area) openings at the moment and expect to have all subscribers installed and operational in the fall of 2023,” Lewis said.
The streaks of paint and tiny white flags popping up across Block Island are not signs of surrender. They are signs of progress. The popular summer tourist destination, nine miles off the coast of Rhode Island, is on the verge of building a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, bringing gig-speed Internet connectivity to the more than 1,000 residents who call the community home.
The markers on residents’ property are plot points along the construction route as network planners prepare to start building the last-mile portion at the end of March.
On Feb. 4, BroadbandBI launched its website, announcing that the construction materials had finally arrived on the Island and signaling the start of construction would soon be underway.
Sertex, the company partnering with the town to build the network, is anticipating deploying more than 60 miles of fiber to deliver high-speed Internet service directly to homes and businesses in New Shoreham, the only town on Block Island.
Pop the Champagne
Residents there unanimously voted in July 2020 to pay for the construction of the island-wide network with $8 million in bonds. Approval for the project was so overwhelming that when the vote took place the Block Island School gymnasium erupted with cheers and applause.
Currently, there are still only three options for Internet service on the Island: Verizon DSL, satellite, and mobile services with the fastest speed advertised at 35 Megabits per second (Mbps). And for a period of time, it seemed as if residents were doomed to those tortoise-like speeds forever.
In 2014, the Block Island Times captured experiences from its readers after an especially frustrating summer of spotty service. One reader, Jessica Fischburg wrote, “We have Verizon and live down in Franklin Swamp. No cell service. Our Internet is painfully slow unless you wake up super early. We have no choice but to disconnect when we come out to the island!”
The Answer Was Blowing in the Wind
The Covid-19 pandemic has made it difficult for local governments to hold in-person meetings, but the people of Block Island, Rhode Island, didn’t let it get in the way of bringing better connectivity to their community.
Late last month, voters in Block Island’s sole town of New Shoreham gathered (at safe distances) in the local school building and on its grounds to approve $8 million in borrowing to build an island-wide, municipal fiber network. Residents were overwhelmingly in favor of funding the broadband network, which would be the first of its kind in the state.
Townspeople and visitors alike have been dissatisfied with communications services on the island for many years. In response, the town built a fiber network to connect anchor institutions last year. Now, New Shoreham is preparing to expand its fiber network to island homes and businesses.
“I believe the vote to authorize the pursuit of the island-wide broadband will prove to be a transformational vote in this town’s history,” Town Manager Jim Kern told the Block Island Times. “And the level of support for the proposal reflected that.”
Coastal Community Needs Connectivity
New Shoreham is home to about 1,000 year-round residents, but the island, located about 9 miles south of the Rhode Island mainland and 14 miles east of Long Island, New York, is a popular destination for summer tourists. More than 40% of Block Island is currently protected via conservation easements.
Earlier this summer, we talked with Jase Wilson and Lindsey Brannon from Neighborly, the investment firm that uses online investing to allow individuals to invest in publicly owned infrastructure projects, including broadband networks. Jase and Lindsey described a program they had just launched, the Neighborly Community Broadband Accelerator.
A Boost for Local Broadband
The program is designed to help local communities with necessary tools and financing from the start of their project planning. The Accelerator will provide mapping and community engagement tools, help from experts who will share best practices, and access to industry partners, such as ISPs and engineers. In addition to these and other information perks, communities accepted to the program will have the benefit of Neighborly financing at a competitive, below industry rate cost.
Applications were due by September 28th and more than 100 applications indicate that, more than ever, local communities are interested in taking action to improve connectivity. These 35 communities were accepted into the Broadband Accelerator Program:
Eight strands of publicly available fiber optic cable made landfall on Block Island, Rhode Island this month, opening the door to Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) for local businesses and residents. Local officials are moving forward with a once in a multi-generational opportunity to share an underwater cable with Deepwater Wind and National Grid. The energy companies are laying lines to the nearby Block Island Wind Farm.
A Brief History of Eight Strands of Fiber
The island is home to only one municipality, New Shoreham, which covers the entire land mass. Block Island residents have struggled with poor utilities for more than a century. Located about 12 miles off the Rhode Island coast, the island has never been connected to the mainland electrical grid or Internet backhaul network. As a result, the town of about 1,000 year-round residents has reported the highest energy costs outside of Alaska and dismal Internet speeds of 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) or slower download and upload speeds that are even more lethargic.
Local residents have put up with unreliable DSL Internet access from incumbent provider Verizon; it delivers service via microwave antennae. The island’s lack of bandwidth was the talk of the town in 2014 when up to 20,000 tourists flooded the network during the summer months:
- “We have Verizon and live down in Franklin Swamp. No cell service. Our Internet is painfully slow unless you wake up super early. We have no choice but to disconnect when we come out to the island!”
- “I was on the island for two weeks in July... We have Verizon and service was practically non-existent. My husband needed to complete some work and I was trying to update web pages I manage. Only had service downtown. Even the shop owners were having difficulties.”
Taking Advantage of the Sea Breeze