Broadband proposal debated, hearing is set

BAR HARBOR — Debate over a proposed municipal fiber-optic network continued Tuesday at a joint workshop meeting of the Town Council and Communications Technology Task Force (CTTF). A public informational meeting with the task force is set for Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. in the council chambers.

Councilors asked about how “future proof” the technology is, concerned that the town could be stuck paying off bonds after it became obsolete. They also expressed concerns about fairness to taxpayers and about duplicating efforts of private companies already providing service.

Last year, the town commissioned a study of options for expanding Internet access from information technology and consulting firm Tilson. The final report, published and distributed to the council in November, includes estimated costs 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 $13-15 million. The CTTF recommendation to the council is to pursue the full four-phase project.

$100,000 for an engineering study of the municipal phase was included in the budget proposed by Town Manager Cornell Knight, but councilors voted 4-3 in a budget workshop last week to reduce the line item to $50,000, intending to delay the study for a year and split the cost between the next two budget cycles. Councilors David Bowden, Paul Paradis, Anne Greenlee and Peter St. Germain voted for the reduction. Clark Stivers, Gary Friedmann and Burt Barker opposed it.

“I didn’t try to kill the project the other night,” Bowden said Tuesday of the budget change, “I tried to slow it down.”

Councilors disagree on estimates of how large a tax increase would be needed to cover the operating costs and debt service on a $15 million bond issue for the project.

Task force members stressed Tuesday that several different business models are possible, with different balances of user fees and taxpayer support. They’d look to council, they said, for direction on which model would be in taxpayers’ best interests.

In response to a question from Councilor Anne Greenlee, the town’s Technology Services Administrator Steve Cornell said the group discussed wireless Internet options early in the process with Tilson, but “fiber was the only thing that was future proof.”

CTTF Chairman Matt Hochman said wireless connections require line-of-sight access and are adversely affected by weather, terrain and water. “Google, Verizon and other tech companies are pumping billions of dollars into fiber right now. They wouldn’t be doing that if it were about to become obsolete.”

The workshop was held immediately before the regular council meeting, and a few residents used the public comment period at the beginning of the council agenda to weigh in.

Donna Karlson said she did not receive a CTTF survey that was supposed to be enclosed in 2015 tax bills. She suggested the task force make another attempt to gather data about residents’ current Internet providers and options.

Roger Innis said he lives in a rural area and pays $900 per year for Internet and doesn’t believe he would save money under the plan. “Don’t tell me I need a connection that’s a thousand times faster, we’re not NASA,” he said. “If you want to do this, don’t tax me, I’m doing just fine.”

He’s concerned that maintenance costs could increase over the life of the system. With his current private service provider, “if something goes wrong, I’m not going to have to pay for it.”

The Tilson report, task force recommendations and results of the CTTF survey about broadband access are available on the town’s website.

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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