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Wireless Mesh Brings Durable Change in Rhode Island - Episode 575 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Jennifer Hawkins, CEO of One Neighborhood Builders (ONB). ONB is a nonprofit organization based in Providence, Rhode Island that works to improve lives through housing and community connection. In 2020 we spoke with Jennifer about the wireless mesh network the nonprofit piloted to address community needs at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. It launched to much fanfare, and ONB has been steadily working to increase its reach and impact since.

After three years and half a million dollars in capital costs, the ONE|NB Connects network has improved its wireless service to 100Mbps symmetrical speeds. And while not everyone in the Olneyville neighborhood can access the network inside of their homes (it's a gap network, after all), with thousands of unique users per month able to access reliable connections for as long as they need, Jennifer tells Chris that they are starting to see the benefits for households facing significant health and economic disparities in the community. They end the show by talking about how ONB is using the expertise it has built along the way to plan for even more durable changes: baking wired infrastructure into new affordable housing MDUs.  

Read a case study of the impact of the ONE|NB Connects network for more.

This show is 33 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.

Rhode Island’s First Municipal Broadband Network Goes Live on Block Island

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.

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Block Island Fiber Service Area map

“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.

Cox Looks to Head Off Municipal Network Competition in Rhode Island

Cox Communications recently grabbed headlines for an announcement that the company would be investing more than $120 million in Rhode Island to expand and upgrade its Internet infrastructure. But officials in the state say much of the planned deployments may not actually even be new. The announcement appears timed to ensure that public funds from the American Rescue Plan are shifted away from potential competitors (including local governments), and toward a regional monopoly long criticized for underinvestment in the state. 

“Historic Investment”

On March 15, the region’s dominant cable broadband provider announced a $120 million plan to provide 10 gigabit per second (Gbps) service to an unspecified number of  Rhode Island residents over the next three years. The coordinated press event and announcement took place at the Old Colony House in Newport mansion of Governor Dan McKee, who heralded the “historic investment.” 

According to Cox, $20 million of the announced total would fund fiber new deployments to roughly 35,000 homes in the Aquidneck Island communities of Newport, Portsmouth, Middletown, and Jamestown. The rest will focus on providing less-robust hybrid coaxial/fiber service to the rest of the state’s residents. 

“We’re preparing for the next generation of Internet use in home and in business,” Ross Nelson, Senior Vice President and Regional Manager for Cox Communications said. “We are committed to being the Internet provider customers can count on to have the speed they need now and in the future.”

But several state leaders, well familiar with cable and phone monopolies' long history of under-investment in the state, say the announcement was largely decorative, and doesn’t come close to actually meeting the needs of long-underserved local Rhode Island communities. 

Community Broadband Legislation Roundup – July 19, 2021

Snapshot

Maine broadband authority redefines statewide broadband as symmetrical 100/100 Mbps connection

California Legislature and Governor reach $5.25 billion agreement on statewide middle-mile network

New Hampshire matching grant initiative aiming to promote partnerships signed by Governor

The State Scene 

Maine

The Maine Senate recently enrolled a bill (L.D. 1432) amending the Municipal Gigabit Broadband Access Fund to only allow communities, municipalities, and regional utilities access to grants through the program. The bill became law without State Governor Janet Mills’ signature on June 24. 

The legislation removes limits placed on the number of grants able to be awarded per project, but limits the amount of funds that may be distributed per project to 50 percent of total costs. The bill, aiming to support the deployment of municipal gigabit fiber optic networks, also requires the ConnectMaine (ConnectME) Authority to establish minimum upload and download speed definitions to foster widespread availability of symmetric high-speed Internet access, beginning in 2025. 

Broadband Comes Ashore on Block Island

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

Broadband Access is a Health and Social Justice Issue — Episode 437 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Jennifer Hawkins, President and Executive Director of One Neighborhood Builders (ONB), a community development organization based out of Rhode Island. She talks about about the Olneyville neighborhood, situated on the west side of Providence, and how significant health disparities in that community led her organization to jump into action over the summer to build a free wireless network for the residents. Jennifer and Christopher talk about mapping the network, placing hardware on ONB-owned buildings, and putting up 12 access points to cover more than half of the community with robust wireless. She shares why the project’s been worth it, and the health outcomes they hope to achieve once it goes online. 

This show is 32 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.

Free Community Wi-Fi as a Health Imperative in One Providence, Rhode Island Neighborhood

When the pandemic hit American shores this past spring and cities around the country began to practice social distancing procedures, Rhode Island-based nonprofit One Neighborhood Builders (ONB) Executive Director Jennifer Hawkins quickly realized that many of those in her community were going to be hit hard. 

As spring turned to summer, this proved especially to be the case in the Olneyville neighborhood in west-central Providence, where Covid-19 cases surged among low-income residents with fewer options to get online to work, visit the doctor, and shop for groceries. This, combined with the fact that the area suffers from an average life expectancy an astonishing eight years shorter than the rest of the state, spurred the nonprofit into action, and it began putting together a plan to build a free community wireless network designed to help residents meet the challenge. One Neighborhood Connects Community Wi-Fi hardware is being installed right now, with plans for the network to go online by Thanksgiving of this year. 

How it Came Together

When Jennifer Hawkins started looking for solutions to the lack of connectivity in the area in March, she ran into a handful of other communities likewise pursuing wireless projects to close the digital divide, including Detroit, New York City, and Pittsburg. Along with One Neighborhood Builder’s IT partner, Brave River Solutions, she explored options and ultimately decided a fixed, point-to-point wireless network could succeed in the neighborhood. This was in no small part because ONB owns 381 apartments, 119 single-family homes, and 50,000 square feet of commercial and community space across Olneyville. It meant that two of the primary obstacles to standing up a fixed wireless network cheaply and quickly — finding suitable hardware installation locations and negotiating Rights-of-Way — were nonexistent, and a fast, less expensive design and rollout was possible.

Block Island to Build Rhode Island’s First City-Owned, Citywide Fiber Network

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.

For Block Island, RI, a Better Network Could Be Blowin’ in the Wind

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

Rhode Island's Aquidneck Community Considers Last Mile Options

Approximately 60,000 people live on Aquidneck Island in the towns of Portsmouth, Newport, and Middletown. The Ocean State Higher Education Economic Development and Administrative Network (OSHEAN) travels to the island but community leaders want to find a way to provide services to more residents, businesses, and institutions. OSHEAN is an under utilized middle mile network and most on the island still receive single digit Mbps service.

The Aquidneck Broadband Advisory Board hopes an investment in a last mile network will spur economic development, expand the use of OSHEAN, and increase telecommuting possibilities on the island. The group includes members from each of the three municipalities, local business leaders, and citizens. A recently released Request for Information seeks input regarding a potential gigabit last mile network that can support data, video, and voice. According to the RFI:

This effort will result in the development of a master plan for improving broadband infrastructure island‐ wide, including finance options, grants, and policies for the installation of high speed fiber optic broadband.

The Board will accept responses until November 15, 2013. A PDF of the RFI is posted on the Newport website.