BAR HARBOR — It’s easy to see how busy Mount Desert Island can be in late summer. A glance at Acadia National Park’s roads and trails, the streets and sidewalks of the downtown villages, and the shops and restaurants confirms that there are a lot of people here.
Some of the impacts of high visitation are obvious – more cars on the roads and in parking lots and longer lines at the grocery store. Others are more hidden, like the demand for internet bandwidth from visitors who often travel with two or more connected devices each. It’s not unusual for some larger hotels to have as many as 700 mobile guest devices connected to their network at any one time.
A crowded network is a lot like a busy highway, George Grohs of Coastal Computers in Somesville said.
“The fewer cars you have, the faster and smoother the trip is going to be. The more cars you get, the slower it gets. That’s exactly what’s going on with data.”
The bandwidth of an internet connection, as measured in download and upload speeds, is like the size of the highway or the diameter of a water pipe. “If you get 5 megabytes per second (mbps) down, you’re trying to get as much data as you can through that pipe. But 5 mbps doesn’t allow even HD [high definition] Netflix streaming. You need 6 to do that.”
Most hotels and campgrounds, he said, have one or more fast (50 mbps) internet connections. “We have found that most folks travel with two devices each, so a family of four would have eight devices that need to connect to the network,” Grohs said. For a hotel with 150 rooms, that’s 1,200 devices trying to access data.
“So what you have to do is cut the piece of the pie for each device. Our hospitality Wi-Fi systems that we install do a thing called load balancing: if there are fewer people on, they get more of the pie. If there are more people on, they get less of the pie. At 50 mbps download speed, with 250 devices on the network, all of a sudden there’s not much of the pie left. Which comes back to the problem of having enough bandwidth.”
“We have definitely seen an upward trend in demand,” Grohs said.
Many visitors from metropolitan areas have 100 mbps (download and upload) connections at their houses. “Some patrons are saying I can’t come here again, this is not gonna work, because of the bandwidth issue. So economically, there’s a future problem.”
Cellular telephone and related data networks also can get crowded. Residents report more dropped calls and slower data connections on their smartphones in peak season.
In the fall cruise ship season in Bar Harbor, thousands of cruise ship passengers access the cell towers here with their own devices. Using Wi-Fi data services on ships is often costs extra, so many users wait until they are in port to check email and surf the net.
If the frequency a phone picks up is owned by a company other than the carrier they have, it’s considered a roaming use.
“If you have a European or Canadian service,” Grohs said, “it’s gonna grab that cellular frequency, but it’s a different company. So if you’re a Verizon customer, and the only thing around is AT&T, you’re roaming.”
AT&T officials say cell sites are designed to handle both local and roaming traffic. “There shouldn’t be any issues creating a conflict between local usage and the roaming usage from those on the cruise ships,” spokesperson Karen Twomey said in an email. “We are not aware of any problems currently.”
All of the local internet service providers (ISPs, such as Time Warner, FairPoint and GWI) offer dedicated internet access service, which is a fiber-optic connection. It can be 10 mbs all the way up to a gigabyte per second (1024 mbps). “You’re looking at about $700 per month give or take for 50 mbps service,” he said.
The town of Bar Harbor offers free Wi-Fi accessible from the Village Green. Users must accept a terms and conditions page, which makes it what is called a “captive portal.” The town does not track usage of that network, said Technology Systems Administrator Steve Cornell.
The Jesup Memorial Library also provides free wireless internet. Their 100 mbps connection is faster, and they usually have fewer users than the hotels and campgrounds.
Use of the network peaked in August, when some days nearly 90 users connected to it. “We rarely see inbound traffic approach 5 mbps even in summer,” system manager Kevin Crandall said, “so there’s plenty of room for more users or bandwidth-intensive applications.”
The signal reaches outside the library and used bookstore and is available even when the library is closed. “It’s common to see and hear patrons outside using their wireless devices, sometimes communicating in a foreign language to loved ones around the world,” he said.
The library’s connection is provided through the Maine School Library Network (MSLN) on a fiber optic strand provided by MaineREN at no cost to the library. TimeWarner also grants the Jesup use of a 20 mbps “business class internet” feed at no cost, but Crandall said that connection is not as flexible because it only has a single, public IP address. That connection would be their backup in case of an extended outage from the MSLN.
The town’s Communications Technology Task Force has recommended the town consider building its own fiber network, which it could then lease to ISPs to provide internet service. Funding for an engineering study toward the first phase of that network was turned down by voters in June.