BAR HARBOR — Councilors voted 4-2 Tuesday to include $100,000 in the 2017 municipal budget for an engineering study of a broadband network designed to connect town buildings.
The town’s appointed Communication Technology Task Force is recommending that the town install fiber optic lines to connect the municipal buildings and school, including the Town Hill Fire Station, in two phases. A residential/commercial build out for the rest of town could follow, at additional cost, they said.
“I think this is about the future of the town,” Councilor Gary Friedmann said in making the motion tentatively to include the funds in the budget. “It is hard to ever look at a tax hike, but we’ve got to take this first step and find out what’s involved. I think we know that if we don’t do this, we’re cutting off an important opportunity for the town’s growth. We’re basically saying all we ever aspire to be is a tourist-based community and a stagnant one at that.”
The network currently used for phone and internet services by the town’s buildings is owned by Time Warner. It does not cost the town anything now, Steve Cornell, the town’s technology systems administrator, told the council. But it may be in jeopardy in the next few years.
More reliable service would be available from business-level service such as other towns use, Cornell said. That could cost Bar Harbor more than $100,000 yearly.
Councilor Clark Stivers has been a representative to the task force. “There are some truths that I’ve come to understand,” he said. “I used an analogy that it’s important to separate the trains from the tracks. One of the reasons we’re in this situation with the town’s incumbent provider is we don’t have the control. They own the trains and the tracks. They do to us what they want, and they tell us how much we’re going to pay. There’s an urgency to try to get this control back, and this first step is the beginning of taking the tracks back. Once we own the tracks, the fiber, then we can introduce competition. And we all know competition is where we can start getting better service and reducing our costs.”
In March of this year, the council approved $38,000 for a study outlining the options for expanding fiber-optic and broadband internet access. The study was conducted by Tilson, a Portland-based information technology and consulting firm. Their report was submitted Oct. 7 and included in the council’s packet for this week’s meeting. A formal presentation of the results is not scheduled until January.
The task force brought the request ahead of that presentation, arguing time is of the essence. “If we don’t get this approved, we could lose a whole year,” Cornell said.
Friedmann agreed that moving forward soon is important. “I think if we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backward,” he said.
The 50-page Tilson report is dense and confusing, some councilors said. Task force members said they hope to discuss and explain more about the report in January and with other workshops or work sessions before then.
“I’ve done two passes at this [proposal] and one pass with a calculator,” Paradis said. The ballpark estimate for construction of the municipal network is $2.5 million. Funding the project with a bond, Paradis said, “puts yearly expenses just for debt service at $120,000. Then you add operating costs. So let’s call it $200,000. So this proposal would be the same as paying $200,000/year for our service. Right now, we’re paying nothing. You said that it could go up to about $150,000. This is not a real strong financial decision.”
He and Bowden both said they’re not necessarily opposed to the project, they just disagree with putting it in the budget before the formal budget process begins.
“I don’t want [Town Manager] Cornell Knight to take all the heat for coming up with a five percent increase in the budget, and it’s because we asked him to put in three percent of the stuff,” Bowden said.
Councilors David Bowden and Paul Paradis voted against. Councilors Clark Stivers, Peter St. Germain, Burt Barker and Gary Friedmann voted in favor of funding the study.
Councilor Anne Greenlee was excused from the meeting due to travel.
Members of the task force include Knight, town Finance Director Stan Harmon, 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.