Plainfield-based company helps Block Island achieve digital equity

Fed up with poor broadband access, Block Island, Rhode Island is rolling out a taxpayer-funded publicly owned gigabit fiber broadband network with assistance from Plainfield company, Sertex Broadband Solutions.

Designed, built and operated without any federal or state financial support, BroadbandBI is bringing Rhode Island’s smallest city into the 21st century.

New Shoreham is the smallest city in Rhode Island. Yet this tiny independent enclave, located 10 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean, has tapped into people’s willingness to bring affordable high-speed fiber connectivity to every resident and business, and tens of thousands of seasonal visitors.

The community envisioned and recently activated BroadbandBI, a 100% local, 100% taxpayer funded fiber network, providing affordable, universal high speed connectivity to this community. On June 5, city leaders plan to officially launch the network with a light-up celebration in honor of their success.

Block Islanders have been dealing with outdated telecommunications services for decades. Until recently, homes and businesses were either underserved with download speeds of up to 3Mbps or unserved with no internet connection. Connected residents had three options for ISP sources: dial-up service, mobile hotspots or, more recently, expensive satellites.

A Sertex team works on Block Island to install the new BroadbandBI network.  (Photo courtesy of Sertex)
A Sertex team works on Block Island to install the new BroadbandBI network. (Photo courtesy of Sertex)

Accessible only by boat or plane, Block Island, a community of 1,000 year-round residents, is forced to be self-sufficient in many ways. For nearly 90 years, Block Island produced its electricity using massive diesel generators, until the Block Island Wind Farm was hooked up in 2015.

During the wind power conversion process, city officials ensured that the new undersea transmission cable built to connect the wind farm to the island included a fiber-optic connection.

Once the undersea fiber connection landed in 2017, the city led by the New Shoreham Broadband Committee chose to build a municipal fiber network to serve its community anchor institutions. The city partnered with Sertex Broadband Solutions, an expert in deploying fiber optic networks.

“New Shoreham launched the CAI network first because adequate Internet access had already reached a critical point of failure for our school, medical center, library, public safety and other city functions,” said Amy Lewis Land , chief financial officer of the city of New Shoreham .

Land said the next step was always toward an island-wide network, as Internet access for residents, businesses and visitors was scarce, expensive and continued to deteriorate. The COVID pandemic has exacerbated that need.

“While the school (through the CAI network) had broadband, students and teachers didn’t have remote learning from home,” Land said. “Residents could not access telehealth or other remote services from their homes. More people have been taking up their second homes year-round to take advantage of a more remote lifestyle. And as a nearby local travel option with plenty of outdoor activities, Block Island visitor numbers have continued to increase, further exacerbating existing infrastructure bottlenecks.

It became increasingly clear that if Block Island wanted a solution to its Internet problem, “we had to do it,” Land said.

In July of 2020, New Shoreham voters authorized up to $8 million in tax-backed bonds to fund BroadbandBI. To build and operate the network, the city has again partnered with Sertex. The company was familiar with the existing network and was willing to take on the challenge of moving 115 miles of fiber optic cable, heavy equipment and labor by ferry, and working with wind, weather and busy tourist seasons during the two year of construction .

According to Michael Solitro, president of Sertex, there were a couple of hurdles that were unique to the New Shoreham project compared to other remote builds.

“The new underground construction represented approximately 62 percent of construction and required pre-approval from the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) or Coastal Resource Management (CRMC) prior to installation,” said Solitro, noting that an engineer environmental who had experience working with these two agencies in Rhode Island was hired to assist with presentations and expedite the approval process.

The only other obstacle was the logistics.

“Procuring materials and equipment has always been a challenge, especially in the summer months. We thank the Interstate Shipping Company that operates the Block Island Ferry for working with us to address our needs,” Solitro said.

All equipment for the project was to be brought in via the Block Island Ferry.  (Photo courtesy of Sertex)
All equipment for the project was to be brought in via the Block Island Ferry. (Photo courtesy of Sertex)

Construction of the network was completed in February 2023. Similar to public investments in roads and bridges, New Shoreham plans to recoup the costs for the network by levying an annual levy on property owners, starting in 2025. Additional monthly fees are incorporated into the broadband subscriptions to cover installation, equipment, transportation, administration, operations and maintenance costs. Even with restoration costs included, the monthly rates are significantly lower than what island customers typically paid for poor previous services.

“As we move into the operational phase of the BroadbandBI network, the city is entering the third phase of its partnership with Sertex LLC. They have built the CAI network, built the BroadbandBI network, and will continue to serve as the network operator for BroadbandBI into the future,” he said. Earth. “Sertex has been a key partner for us throughout the development of the broadband infrastructure of the islands.”

The city has had a positive experience working with the Connecticut company.

“The entire Sertex team are professional, experienced, creative, approachable, and while they may be far from their homes and families, they bring a sense of enthusiasm for what they are building on Block Island and a confidence and expertise around the work they do. said Land, noting that there were many challenges along the way, but they didn’t become major setbacks thanks to the strength of the Sertex team.

“Since we launched the CAI network and now the islandwide network, other communities have reached out to inquire about Block Islands experiences,” Land said, noting that he identifies two keys to building a successful municipal network.

“The first is knowing who you are as a community and really understanding what you want and what your priorities are,” she said.

Block Island wanted a locally controlled broadband network that was affordable, reliable, scalable, and offered the best levels of service available.

“Second is choosing the right partners to help you achieve that vision,” Land said. “I certainly believe that all of our partners in this project share the vision, values ​​and priorities of New Shoreham and that shared perspective has enabled us to achieve together what sometimes seemed unattainable or just too difficult.”

As the wind farm that powers the island, BroadbandBI represents a milestone as Block Island’s best chance at gaining gigabit fiber Internet and the first municipally-owned fiber-optic network in Rhode Island.

The city should be very proud of what it has accomplished with this project, from garnering nearly unanimous community support to addressing the challenges of the pandemic, including workflow and supply chain disruptions. We were breaking new ground as one of the few cities [in the U.S.] that he built such a comprehensive project virtually entirely on his own,” said Maryanne Crawford, City Manager of New Shoreham.

Block Island plans to celebrate the activation of BroadbandBI on Monday, June 5 at the Southeast Lighthouse overlooking the Block Island Wind Farm.

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