CRANBERRY ISLES — Residents at the annual town meeting on Saturday voted overwhelmingly to borrow up to $1.2 million to build a fiber optic network to provide broadband internet service to the town’s three inhabited islands: Great Cranberry, Little Cranberry (Islesford) and Sutton. The vote was 52-4.
But town officials are applying for grants that they hope will cover much if not all of the cost of the project.
Voters at town meeting authorized the town to partner with Axiom Technologies, which specializes in delivering “customized rural broadband deployment solutions to remote communities,” to build the network infrastructure. Axiom, based in Machias, has offered to pay up to 15 percent of the capital costs.
The town last year received a $10,000 grant from the Island Institute to cover part of the cost of hiring a consultant to help design the project and prepare grant applications.
The total cost of the project, including infrastructure, is estimated at just under $1.55 million. The town is applying for a $1.31 million grant from the Rural Development Community Facilities Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to cover most of the cost. The town would pay $230,000.
The USDA grant program was set up to finance “essential community facilities for public use in rural areas.” In 2010, it awarded a $398,000 grant to help with construction of the $915,000 Swans Island Library.
Town officials also intend to apply for grants from ConnectME and the Northern Border Regional Commission. ConnectME is the state agency created “to facilitate the universal availability of broadband to all Maine households and businesses.” The Northern Border Regional Commission is a federal-state partnership that provides federal funds for economic and community development projects in northern Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York.
Currently, RedZone Wireless provides internet service to residents of Islesford and some of the seasonal homes on Sutton Island, but RedZone service is to be discontinued in October. Some residents of Great Cranberry have RedZone service, but most are served by FairPoint Communications, which will continue to be an option on that island.
Jim Fortune, the Board of Selectmen’s administrative assistant, said that, with the new network, the Sutton Island residences will be served by a transmitter tower to be erected on Islesford.
“It will take them from almost non-existent service to a level of wireless service with download and upload speeds that are way better than what they are now,” he said.
The town’s Broadband Committee was formed last year to develop a long-term broadband solution for the three islands. In a letter to all Cranberry Isles residents in February, the committee said the town’s survival as a year-round community depends on many factors, including the availability of broadband service.
“In today’s culture, broadband is no longer discretionary,” the letter said. “We, as a town, must meet the demands of students to complete assignments at home and of adults to take online course … the demands of telecommuters for service fast enough to do their work … the need of small businesses, of town government, of services such as fire and rescue and telemedicine.
“Our geographic remoteness does not mean we need broadband less than do our mainland neighbors,” the Broadband Committee letter continued. “We need it more, simply because we have reached a point at which people cannot live in this beautiful, remote location without it.”
Voters at town meeting approved a school budget for next year of $649,919. That is $66,773 higher than current year’s budget.
About 84 percent of the increase is to pay tuition for four Cranberry Isles students who are currently in the eighth grade to attend Mount Desert Island High School next year. This year, two Cranberry Isles students are sophomores at the high school and one is a junior.
Towns that are not on MDI do not pay taxes to support the high school, but pay tuition of $11,584 for each of their high school students.
Longfellow School on Great Cranberry Island has 11 elementary and middle school students this year. It expects an enrollment of 10 next year.
Longfellow opened this year following extensive renovations. It had been closed for 15 years. All Cranberry Isles students will attend classes there this year and next before switching back to Ashley Bryan School for two years.
Voters at town meeting voted to authorize the town to borrow up to $150,000 for construction or purchase of a building for the town office. The town office is currently housed in a trailer next to the fire station on Islesford. The town’s website whimsically describes the temporary quarters as “plush but not overly ostentatious.”
To be continued…
The town meeting ran so long on Saturday that there wasn’t time to discuss and vote on all of the warrant articles. The meeting will resume this Friday, March 17, at 8:45 a.m. at Longfellow School to take up the left-over items, including the municipal budget, which totals $4.13 million, and a proposal to borrow up to $672,000 to extend the Islesford Town Dock.