PORTSMOUTH — For years, Prudence Islanders have been denied access to what most residents of Portsmouth proper and beyond take for granted: reliable and fast internet access.
That could change very soon, however. American Broadband, based in Bristol, has provided high-speed internet to over 50 homes on the island since launching in March, and is looking to expand so the service is available to all homes on Prudence — anywhere from 350 to 400 in total.
But first the company needs some help from the town.
Art Shenberger, the principle behind the Bristol-based company, will go before the Town Council on Monday, July 27, to request permission to erect a 70-foot, free-standing antenna tower on town-owned land at the northwest corner of the transfer station on Hedly Street. The virtual meeting, to be held on the Zoom platform, starts at 7 p.m.
Under the proposal, the tower would be built at no cost to the town, and American Broadband would lease the land for $1 per year.
Currently, the island has coverage from the northwest side of the island at Rossi’s down the east side of Prudence to Sandy Point, where the lighthouse is located. However, some spots are unable to see American Broadband’s Bristol access point at 400 Metacom Ave. due to elevation, trees or homes blocking the signal.
“We’re on top of that old hotel, the King Philip (Inn),” said Mr. Shenberger, who lives in Portsmouth.
That’s why tower space in Portsmouth is essential, Mr. Shenberger said, in getting continuous coverage on the east side of Prudence Island.
“We’re not asking (the town) for money. We’re asking them for space — a place to put a tower,” said Mr. Shenberger, who’s already met with Public Works Director Brian Woodhead to look at the transfer station site.
“We can see the transfer station in a lot of spots (on Prudence),” he said. “If the town will allow us, we’re like to put our own money in the town and infrastructure. We want to build it adjacent to the building so we can get power to it, with a small shed to house equipment. We’re not asking the town for free power; we’ll pay for it.”
Besides the transfer station, the company had also considered using the tower behind the police and fire stations at the top of Quaker Hill. “But it turned out the town didn’t actually own it,” said Mr. Shenberger. “We looked at other options.
Another prospective site was the smaller water tower behind the Portsmouth Water and Fire District further south.
As for expanding broadband coverage on the island’s west side, the company has reached a preliminary agreement with the owners of Rossi’s farm for a solar-powered tower on that property.
American Broadband is also looking into several solutions for those areas of Prudence that will never have a line of sight to any tower. Possibilities include a 900 MHz system that penetrates foliage, a mesh network of relay antennas from existing customers, or a fiber hybrid system with the assistance of federal and/or state grant money.
Internet at a snail’s pace
Before his company launched broadband for a select number of homes on Prudence on March 16, “the only thing the island had prior to this was 200 lines of phone line from Verizon that was laid underwater,” he said.
About 200 homes could access internet at a speed of only between 1 and 2 Mbps (megabits per second), he said, with another 100 people waiting for the same slow service. While 1 or 2 Mbps may be enough for day-to-day internet browsing, that’s operating at a crawl when it comes to the modern demands of streaming and downloading.
“When we found out that Prudence had the need, we decided to go ahead and get it up and running,” Mr. Shenberger said, noting that his company, which has been providing television and internet access since 1994 beginning in Newport, is “focused on getting the underserved served.”
While visiting the island, he was connected with Ed “Hap” Aldrich, who started pushing the town several years ago for help in bringing reliable high-speed internet service to Prudence. Mr. Aldrich, who has no fiduciary involvement in the project, shared his corporate knowledge and past experience with Mr. Shenberger.
Options and costs
American Broadband is offering two options: an unlimited 50 Mbps package and an unlimited 100 Mbps package priced at $70 per month and $100/month, respectively. Currently there are 53 fixed wireless customers; 47 have the unlimited 50 Mbps plan and six have the unlimited 100 Mbps plan, he said. Installation is $150 and is waived for those who pay annually.
“It’s fast enough for them to stream multiple devices at the same time, do online meetings, do internet connection stuff in the home and watch a meeting and not have buffering,” he said.
In other words, anywhere from 50 to 100 times faster than what Verizon offers on the island, he said.
Prudence Island isn’t the company’s only target for improved service.
“We’ve also joined the Newport County Chamber of Commerce and they’ve talked to us about expanding to areas of Aquidneck Island and Tiverton that were needing of service,” Mr. Shenberger said. “We don’t want to make Prudence Island the only place we serve.”
However, he said the islanders have been a pleasure to work with.
“It’s an honor and a pleasure doing business on Prudence Island, because those folks really appreciate someone coming in and helping them being brought into the 21st century.”
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