MOUNT DESERT — Extending broadband Internet access to every household in Mount Desert would cost an estimated $13.3 million, according to the firm that recently completed a study of the town’s telecommunications needs.
The study was conducted by Tilson Technology Management, an information technology services and network construction firm in Portland. Voters at town meeting in May agreed to pay Tilson $22,000 to evaluate the state of high-speed Internet access and to present options for eliminating sizeable gaps.
Building a network to provide universal broadband access throughout the town is one of four options that Tilson identified.
The other options are significantly less expensive, but Aaron Paul, one of the Tilson broadband consultants who conducted the study, called them “patchwork solutions.” He presented a summary of the study’s findings and the four broadband solution options at Monday’s meeting of the Board of Selectmen.
He said the recommendations were informed by comments and suggestions made at a public meeting on the issue in July.
“People wanted to know how much it would cost just to make sure everyone had really great Wi-Fi in the places where people congregate,” Paul said. “There is a very specific goal to provide ubiquitous Wi-Fi access in village centers and in harbor areas so that people could use it on their yachts and people could take out their laptops on a warm summer day and stay in a particular outdoor spot for a while,” he said.
Paul said the cost would range from $6,000 to $10,000 per site.
He said two of the solution options “are really about plugging gaps in Otter Creek and Pretty Marsh, getting people something now to get them out of dial-up. A lot of people are still using dial-up in those two areas.”
One way to address that problem, Paul said, would be to work with a phone company that provides DSL service “and essentially provide another node close by that they can use to enhance service.”
DSL is a technology for carrying information over regular telephone lines at high speed. The estimated cost of this solution is $60,000.
The other “patchwork” solution would be to extend wireless broadband service by installing additional antennas on existing cell towers and perhaps building one or two new towers.
Paul said the cost would range from $500,000 to $800,000, depending on whether new towers are needed.
There currently are three cell towers in Mount Desert. Construction of a tower in Otter Creek has been approved by the planning board. However, that tower is unlikely to provide coverage for most of the village of Seal Harbor.
Town Manager Durlin Lunt observed that finding an acceptable place to build a tower in Seal Harbor could be quite difficult, if not impossible.
Paul said the best solution for the town is the $13.3 million option because it would provide “the fastest Internet available today and for the next several decades to every premise here, seasonal or year-round.”
Paul cited studies showing the economic benefits that universal broadband access brings to communities, including boosts in job creation, median household income and average home value.
“Economists don’t often agree on many things, but they do agree that broadband contributes to economic health,” he said.
Mount Desert’s economic development committee and consultant Jackie Hewitt have said the expansion of broadband Internet access throughout the town would encourage and support business development and increase the year-round population.
Paul outlined two possible business models for a universal-access broadband network: municipal financing and ownership and a system owned by investors.
Town officials have scheduled a public hearing on Tilson’s broadband study findings and solution options for Oct. 21.