BAR HARBOR — Expanding fiber-optic and broadband internet access in town drew lots of questions from town councilors Tuesday.
The council met with staff from Tilson, a Portland-based information technology and consulting firm, about a study of potential options.
The Tilson report includes plans for a four-phase build-out of a town-owned fiber network. The first two phases would connect municipal buildings and schools, and represent a $2.5 million capital expense. Including two more phases, extending the network to all homes and business in the town, would cost a total of $15 million. The town’s Communications Technology Task Force recommendation to the council is the full four-phase project.
The study was requested by the town’s task force and approved by the Town Council in March of last year at a cost of $38,000. The report was published and distributed to the council in November.
At Tuesday’s meeting, consultant Liza Quinn and engineer John Costa of Tilson formally presented the findings.
Councilors discussed the costs and benefits of such a system. Paying for it would require bond issues.
“I’m really weighing this,” Councilor David Bowden said. “On the one hand, I can think of four people I know in town who don’t have computers” who would be bearing the cost in their taxes and seeing no benefit. “The plus is that I think it would draw younger people to our area.”
Task force Chair Matt Hochman said some rural areas of the town do not currently have access to high-speed internet. “The incumbent [internet service] providers are never going to want to serve those areas, because it’s not profitable. A town network may be the only way they are ever going to get broadband. Cost can’t be the only thing we’re looking at.”
Task force members also argued that high-speed internet access boosts property values and makes it possible for workers to telecommute.
Councilor Gary Friedmann said he has heard from constituents who are dissatisfied with the customer service, as well as connection speeds, of current providers.
In the proposed business model, capital expenses and fixed operating expenses all would be paid by taxpayers, and only some of the operating expenses would be billed directly to users of the service.
Council Chair Paul Paradis said he’d like to see a model where user fees recapture some of the capital costs, as is common with water and electric systems.
“This council has recently discussed pay-as-you-throw systems for garbage,” he said, in which cost is shifted away from tax funds and onto individual users. “This seems like the opposite of that.”
The town could decide to adjust the fiscal model in a number of ways, Quinn said. The task force suggested running the numbers for the residential fiber network, charging property owners for the “drops,” connections to homes and businesses, rather than including them in the town’s portion of the project. That would save the town about $1 million.
Paradis said he didn’t see debt service costs in the budget outline, and worries that too many bond issues may impact the town’s bond rating.
He also said the report doesn’t mention profits for an internet service provider (ISP) to provide the retail service once the network is built. Quinn said those profits are built into the estimated user fees.
Funds are tentatively included in the 2017 municipal budget for a $100,000 engineering study of a broadband network to connect town buildings. This study is the equivalent of an architect’s plans for a building, Quinn said, and would provide good cost estimates and enough information for the town to issue a request for proposals for the work.
The council and task force are set to continue the conversation in a special workshop Feb. 2 at 6 p.m., before the regular council meeting. A public informational meeting with the task force is set for Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. in the council chambers.
Members of the Communications Technology Task Force include Town Manager Cornell Knight, town Finance Director Stan Harmon, Councilor Clark Stivers, Brian Booher, Matt Hochman, George Grohs and Josh Young. Ruth Eveland of the Jesup Memorial Library also has been involved, representing the HUB of Bar Harbor.
The Tilson report, task force recommendations and results of a resident survey about broadband access are available on the town’s website.
Click here to view the full report.