BAR HARBOR — The Warrant Committee voted narrowly Monday to remove funds in the proposed town budget for an engineering study of a town-owned broadband network to connect the municipal buildings here. The vote was 9-7 in favor of cutting the $50,000 in the draft fiscal year 2017 budget, with one abstention.
The Communications Technology Task Force (CTTF), appointed by the council to research options for improving internet access and to explore a town-owned network, initially requested $100,000 for the study. It would be a complete network design and give an accurate cost estimate for the project. The Town Council recommended splitting the cost over two years, so the current budget includes $50,000.
Warrant Committee members said the $100,000 study cost is included in a larger estimate of $2.5 million for the municipal network to be built and asked why it was being asked for separately, according to warrant member and CTTF chair Matthew Hochman.
“To me it’s a chicken/egg situation,” Hochman told the Islander. “We don’t know what the final amount will be until we do the network design, so we cannot ask for a bond.”
Committee members said the CTTF had not done enough market research to see if residents want the network in the first place. They also expressed a desire for the town to continue to negotiate with Time Warner, the cable television provider which owns the broadband internet network currently used by the town for municipal operations.
Bar Harbor is a member of the Penobscot Downeast Cable Consortium, which operates under a franchise agreement with Time Warner Cable. The current agreement expired in 2013. The town pays $4,500 in dues to the consortium every year.
“We are currently operating under the terms of the previous agreement while we work with the consortium to renew the franchise agreement,” Time Warner representative Scott Pryzwansky said. “We look forward to continuing our relationship for many years to come.”
The consortium continues to negotiate with the company on behalf of the member towns, Bar Harbor Finance Director Stan Harmon said.
“It’s like a union wage negotiation, it goes on and on,” he said.
Member towns decided what they wanted to ask for in a new agreement. Those requests include a “service level agreement” under which Time Warner would provide a guaranteed “up time” to fix service interruptions.
“In any new agreement, both of those are going to go away,” Harmon said.
Attorney Mary Costigan of Bernstein Shur is the consortium’s negotiator. She updates the consortium’s board, which Bar Harbor Technology Services Administrator Steve Cornell chairs, at their meetings every few months.
Harmon said under the current agreement, Time Warner offers the town free use of unused “dark” fiber they own. That fiber system is what Cornell uses to connect town buildings for internet and phone service, “lighting up” the fiber and operating the network himself.
The company would prefer to charge the town to use its network, rather than offer the dark fiber for free.
Time Warner also pays the town franchise fees representing five percent of their revenues from cable television customers here, an average of $80,000 a year. Those fees are paid directly by customers as a separate line item on their bills.
Pryzwansky said a density of about 20 homes per mile is generally needed before Time Warner will build out services to an area. In places they’ve decided it’s not feasible to build, customers can offer to pay construction costs themselves in order to connect to the Time Warner network.
“We prefer to build, manage and operate our own networks to serve our customers,” he said. “Time Warner Cable supports broadband adoption programs enabling Mainers to acquire and to make effective use of broadband service where it already is available. If a municipality wants to offer a service already offered by the private sector, we welcome the competition, but using taxpayer funds for broadband deployment should be limited to unserved areas.”
The CTTF met Monday afternoon with representatives from FairPoint Communications, another telecommunications firm that owns cable infrastructure and offers internet service here.
“It’s important to know what you have for infrastructure as you begin the process” of contemplating a municipally-owned network, Jeffrey Nevins, manager of community broadband for the company, told the task force.
He shared maps of FairPoint’s system in the town, which includes fiber runs between a central office and remote terminals, then copper or “bonded” copper (redundant loops) from remote terminals to homes and businesses.
French Scott, the company’s director of innovation and business development, shared maps of the company’s current equipment here and planned upgrades. The maps are proprietary, he said, so they were not included in the report the town commissioned by consulting firm Tilson last year.
They’re running DSL high speed internet service into remote terminals that were originally set up for phone service, he said. FairPoint has a fiber connection to Mount Desert Island High School, but they don’t currently provide the school’s service.
Scott said that many current customers here are “undersubscribed,” meaning they haven’t signed up for the fastest internet available in their location. That’s a metric the company uses when deciding when and where to build out or upgrade services.
Committee members disagreed with those numbers, saying customers don’t know about many of the faster internet packages.
“I’ve called to get services as recently as last week,” Cornell said. “I was told there’s nothing available. You’re not telling anybody you have these services.”