Technology is ever expanding, with many of us earning degrees or working from home and using the internet in our downtime. Our lives are constantly online, but for some communities in the United States, the internet is not as easily accessible.
For the people of New Shoreham, R.I., also called Block Island, this was their reality. This town—the smallest town in the smallest state—sits 10 miles into the Atlantic Ocean and is only accessible by boat or plane. For years, many residents went without internet connection, while others struggled with download speeds as slow as 3 mbps through dial-up service or hotspots.
After being underserved for decades, the community decided to band together and bring their town online.
This island has a history of self-reliance, creating its own diesel energy for almost 90 years. In 2015, the Block Island Wind Farm was developed, and during discussions with Deepwater Wind, town members negotiated that a fiber optic connection was included in the submarine transmission cable built to connect the wind farm to the island. They had the foresight to envision reliable, green electricity with a fiber connection that would eventually serve their internet needs.
In 2017 the connection was established, and the New Shoreman Broadband Committee initiated plans for a fiber network to serve community anchor institutions, including their school, library, medical center and more.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, the need for connectivity for its residents became urgent, and Block Islanders realized they would have to build the network themselves. In July 2020, residents voted to issue $8 million in tax-supported bonds to fund BroadbandBI. Receiving no federal backing, Block Island partnered with Sertex Broadband Solutions, Plainfield, Conn., which agreed to move 115 miles of fiber optic cabling, equipment and laborers by ferry over the two-year project. Network construction was completed in February 2023, and was fully activated for residents in May 2023.
To sustain the network, New Shoreman will begin taxing property owners in 2025. They’ve also included additional fees in their broadband service to cover installation, equipment, transportation, operations and maintenance costs. Still, Block Islanders say their monthly bills are much lower than the options they had before.
“We would love to access federal funding in support of this project,” said Amy Lewis Land, the town’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.”
New Shoreham’s town manager, Maryanne Crawford, says she’s proud of her community’s resilience.
“The town should take a great deal of pride in what it has accomplished with this project—from achieving near-unanimous community support to facing down the challenges of the pandemic, including disruptions in workflow and supply chain. We’re plowing new ground as one of the few towns [in the U.S.] that has done such a comprehensive project pretty much entirely on its own. It’s extraordinary. We did this. And we did it by ourselves,” she said.
Header photo: Aerial view of Block Island. Photo by Timothy J. Quill / Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)