Broadband advisory committee appointed

After the $8.3 million proposed broadband plan failed to garner support from island residents, the New Shoreham Town Council was sent searching for answers aimed at utilizing eight strands of fiber at the town’s disposal in National Grid’s transmission cable. On Wednesday, May 17, the Town Council voted unanimously in favor of appointing a new, five member committee to advise the Council with the town’s broadband initiative, replacing the old working group. Those members are: Bill McKernan, Kathy Szabo, Lucinda Morrison, Gail Ballard Hall, and Christine Monje. The committee will be advised by consultants, including Andrew D’Uva, who is a technology consultant and sat on the working group. In forming the new committee, Council members stressed the need for gathering more information about broadband options, and having an open approach that educates the community throughout the process, with the hope of voting on a proposal at a special Financial Town Meeting in August. New cost estimates for the project are at this point unknown.

Interim Town Manager Shirlyne Gobern emphasized that the former broadband advisory group was just a working group formed by then-Town Manager Nancy Dodge. “It was an informal group,” said Gobern, noting that the newly formed committee would advise the Town Council and include some of the same members. McKernan, Hall, and Morrison are holdovers from that group. D’Uva said that the working group’s charge was to come up with a “proposed architecture” for a system, but were limited in their endeavor by certain conditions. “One was no aesthetic effect on the community — so no new towers,” he said. “That essentially eliminated wireless.” D’Uva said the group worked with Tilson Technology on the $8.3 million fiber-to-the-premises proposal. Councilor Martha Ball asked D’Uva who imposed the conditions on the group. D’Uva said, “They came from Nancy Dodge, who pretty much said, ‘No towers.’ It was our sense that putting up anything visible would have been rejected.

If that’s incorrect, then we would have to start the engineering work all over again.”

“That was the first time I heard that there had been parameters set,” said Ball. “I’m a little surprised to be hearing that these were things that were cast in stone.”

Lacoste asked McKernan if he could shed light on the issue of parameters. McKernan said, “The initial parameters were discussed with Nancy in meetings. And it was also Tilson Technology, who looked at the island topography — and it tended toward a wired solution instead of a wireless solution.”

Dodge, who was not in attendance, told The Block Island Times that, “It wasn’t me (who set the parameters). It was the working group who came to a consensus that there would be no appetite for three to four 75-foot tall towers on the island. I didn’t arbitrarily conclude that on my own.”

During the meeting, D’Uva said, “The solution is obvious. It really doesn’t require a lot of debate. So, the question for this successor group is: what would they be doing? Is it raising education for the town’s stakeholders? Does the Town Council want to go back and start a different way?”

D’Uva noted that while the group worked with Tilson Technology on drafting a Whitepaper for the community, the advisory group “didn’t do a huge, broad-based education campaign.” D’Uva said he would like to help, but that he isn’t on-island full-time.

“The concept is ready for approval,” said D’Uva. “The town may not be ready to approve it, but there’s not a lot of work that can be done without making some fundamental changes — sort of going back and saying, ‘We don’t want this, or that.'”

First Warden Ken Lacoste said the group’s charge was “kind of broad brush strokes,” but didn’t “specifically set up specific milestones and goals.”

Councilor Chris Willi said that the “concept of forming a town appointed committee came out of a lack of education. I spoke with Gail (Ballard Hall), and she gave me a bunch of information that was not available, I guess, to the general public. So, I think I would envision the committee moving forward as” answering a number of questions and educating the public about broadband.

“It’s the price tag that everyone is concerned about,” said Councilor Andr? Boudreau. Lacoste agreed. “If we’re going to put this to the voters then the information needs to be solid, and the project needs to be palatable.” After some back and forth regarding the size of the group, the Town Council decided on a five member committee that solicits advice from technology consultants like D’Uva.

In other news, the Town Council voted 2-0, with Lacoste, Ball, and Willi recused, to issue resident Carol Payne a hawker’s and peddler’s license for one year for the Fort Island location in New Harbor. Payne was second on the waiting list, but resident Rob Closter was not ready to use the license, and asked the Council to offer it to Payne. The Town Council’s next meeting is Monday, June 5 at 7 p.m.

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