Broadband plan draws comments

BAR HARBOR — Residents at a public meeting hosted by the town’s Communications Technology Task Force Jan. 4 were divided about a proposed municipal fiber-optic network.

The meeting packed the council chambers and lasted two and a half hours.

Many balked at the large price tag of a network extending to every resident in town, estimated at between $11 million and $15 million. Others see the project as essential for economic development.

The Town Council appointed the CTTF to explore options for expanding access to broadband service. A study completed by Portland consulting firm Tilson was distributed to the council in November. It outlines phases of a possible fiber build out, first to connect municipal buildings and then to connect every property in town.

How to pay for the capital and operating expenses of building the network is an open question. Town Technology Systems Administrator Steve Cornell said the CTTF has not made any recommendations about funding models and seeks direction from the council.

Resident Donna Karlson said she contacted officials in some of the towns mentioned in the Tilson study for more information.

“Rockport, Ellsworth and the famously successful Leavitt, Mass. – it’s all at different stages. They’ve all used grant money to start it off. They haven’t evolved that quickly,” she said. “Rockport financed the 1.6 miles they have now through the center part of town, and they used grant money, and they used money from a tax increment financing (TIF) district. But they haven’t at this point gone to the taxpayers and asked for a larger system.

“I don’t want people to leave the meeting with the impression that Rockport has fiber to the whole town. I just want to be very careful about comparing apples to oranges.”

In council discussions on the subject so far, Karlson said, “there was not agreement about what are the real costs. That concerns me as a taxpayer.”

CTTF member George Grohs said Bar Harbor does meet income or mill rate qualifications for many of the grants other towns have used.

The group approached the Jackson Laboratory early in their work, task force members said. The research nonprofit is connected to the Maine Fiber Network broadband system – part of the “Three Ring Binder” – and does not have any incentive to participate in the proposed municipal project.

“We have to move along somehow, and that’s what this is all about,” said Jeff Case, who for many years operated AcadiaNet, a local internet service provider (ISP). “It is a defensive maneuver. You’re gonna have to do it, otherwise people are going to start ignoring this place. It will turn into a ghost town if people don’t come here to rent.”

Case said the town would be ill-equipped to become its own ISP, but could contract with a private firm. He suggested continuing to work with other towns.

“I think if you had the whole island, then you’ve got a quorum that could raise some eyebrows and bring some economies of scale.”

Resident Erin Early-Ward said construction of any of the proposed network is still several years away. She compared the planning work to packing a parachute before you need it.

“We serve at the pleasure of the council,” Clark Stivers, council liaison to the CTTF, told the Islander Wednesday. Once the task force recommended to the council that the full residential network be built, technically their work was done.

The council voted to split the cost of the engineering study for a network connecting municipal buildings and schools, over the next two budget years.

“If that’s the plan, to start with $50,000 and add another $50,000 next year, I’m not sure what the Town Council would require the task force to do in that span of time. It might be to sit tight.”

“Now it’s a matter of working it out with townspeople to see if they’re interested, and if they are, how they want to do it,” he said.

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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