Remote Rhode Island community turns up municipal fiber network

Block Island, located just 12 miles south off mainland Rhode Island, has launched a municipal broadband network in partnership with Sertex Broadband Solutions. Dubbed BroadbandBI, the gigabit fiber network will power the town of New Shoreham, which has a population of roughly 1,000 people.

At a ceremony celebrating BroadbandBI’s launch, Rhode Island’s Secretary of Commerce Elizabeth Tanner called the rollout a “game changer for the whole island.”

“Reliable internet speeds should not be a luxury. It should be something that is available for anyone without any regard,” said Tanner. “It’s the backbone of what our economy is and where it’s going…so to see Block Island have some of the highest internet speeds in the entire state, it’s just truly incredible.”

New Shoreham initially struck a partnership with Sertex in 2017 to build a municipal broadband network serving community anchor institutions, such as schools, libraries and hospitals. That network was completed in 2019. The BroadbandBI project kicked off in July 2020, when New Shoreham residents voted to authorize $8 million in tax-supported bonds to finance a network expansion. Construction was completed in February.

Ken Lacoste, a local business owner and former New Shoreham town council member, said BroadbandBI’s internet speeds have improved his businesses and communications “exponentially.”

He explained until about a month ago, “my download speed was as low as 1.77 [Mbps], my upload speed was 0.32 [Mbps]. Dreadfully slow to work, communicate or recreate with. Now, I’m seeing 356 down at over 30 upload.”

To make up for the network’s cost, New Shoreham plans to collect an annual tax from property owners beginning in 2025, as well as incorporate additional monthly fees into broadband subscriptions. Those fees would cover things like installation, equipment and maintenance costs.

“We would love to access federal funding in support of this project,” said Amy Lewis Land, New Shoreham’s finance director. “But we had to move forward without a promise of assistance, so we set rates for a recapture that would cover our costs and create a viable, sustainable framework to operate the utility long-term.”

Sertex, which has experience in building broadband in remote locations, had to move around 115 miles of fiber optic cables and equipment by ferry and work in turbulent weather conditions to finish the network over a two-year period.

“Once we got the product, we had to get it to the island,” said Sertex CEO Michael Solitro, who explained Block Island is only accessible by boat or via a small aircraft and “you really can’t put cable reels on a small aircraft.”

“We did this through the summer months and in the winter – this was a year-round project for us,” he added. “We scheduled hundreds of ferry trips for the Block Island ferry over the 24-month period.”

Another key challenge Solitro highlighted was environmental compliance, as roughly 62% of construction took place underground.

“So there was going to be a lot of digging. It wasn’t very deep, it wasn’t too disturbing, but still we had to get permitting from the Department of Environmental Management and the CRMC [Coastal Resources Management Council],” he said.

Rhode Island isn’t the only state where providers face challenges with deploying broadband to islands. Alaska operator GCI, which is working on delivering high-speed internet to dozens of Aleutian and Alaska Peninsula communities, has cited obstacles such as weather constraints and lack of transportation for delivering equipment, among others.