MOUNT DESERT — Internet service provider Redzone Wireless will remove its equipment from Mount Desert Elementary School by July 15, 2019 at the insistence of Marc Gousse, superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System.
The school has housed Redzone equipment since 2007, when the company and the town entered into a partnership to extend high-speed wireless internet access throughout much of the community. The town paid Redzone $75,000 to subsidize that extension.
The town’s partnership with Redzone ended in 2012, but the school has continued to house some of the company’s equipment in its data center, and its antenna is on the town’s public safety communications tower on the roof.
Last month, Gousse and Redzone President Jim McKenna signed a “termination agreement” that calls for Redzone to remove its equipment by July 15.
“I don’t think it’s a good practice to have a private, for-profit entity in our school using space,” Gousse told the Mount Desert School Committee Nov. 7.
“There were also access and security issues,” he said, noting that Redzone personnel had keys to the school building. “I just wasn’t comfortable with it.”
Gousse said he had “extensive” email conversations with McKenna over the past few months about his desire to have Redzone remove its equipment from the school.
“When that wasn’t going well informally, I reached out to our legal counsel, and the [termination] agreement was executed between the two attorneys,” Gousse said.
He said he consulted with school committee chairman Todd Graham about the termination decision.
McKenna told the Islander it was “unfortunate” that Gousse insisted on Redzone removing its equipment from Mount Desert Elementary.
“While I don’t see this impacting any existing clients, it certainly could impact areas that we might have difficulty serving from other repeaters,” he said.
To make sure all current customers continue to be served, McKenna said, “We’ll shuffle things around; we operate from numerous sites. Our equipment is small enough that all the traffic [handled by the antenna on the school] just shifts to a site we have on the hill above the golf course.”
Gousse told the school committee that, according to the agreement that allowed Redzone to use some of the school’s space, “There is supposed to be some remuneration, but I’m having a hard time finding a record of what has transpired.”
McKenna said that in his exchanges with Gousse, “The superintendent made it pretty clear that he thought we were ripping off the taxpayers, and it didn’t look like it was going to be a healthy relationship. So, I think it’s best we move on.”
McKenna told the Islander that Redzone was a “paying tenant,” but he said he didn’t know how much the company has been paying the school.
“We pay lease to almost 75 towers in Maine,” he said. “We pay whatever the landlord asks us to pay. We may try to negotiate down, but in the end, they set the rate.”
He said the Mount Desert school committee and former Principal Scott McFarland set the amount Redzone was to pay.
However, the minutes of school committee meetings contain no record of the committee ever voting to charge Redzone anything. And Nancy Thurlow, the school system’s business manager, said Tuesday, “I’ve looked back, and I don’t see that we’ve received anything from them.”
And for several years, at least, the Mount Desert Elementary budgets have shown nothing under “anticipated receipts” or “actual receipts” that could have been Redzone payments, not even in the category of “miscellaneous receipts.”
At a March 2014 school committee meeting, which McKenna attended, McFarland said the school was continuing for pay for the electricity used by Redzone’s equipment, even though the company’s five-year partnership with the town had ended two years earlier.
McFarland said he and the school’s technology coordinator, Wendell Oppewall, estimated that the cost of electricity used by Redzone was about $850 a year. McFarland said Redzone should start paying its share, and McKenna agreed.
Caroline Pryor, a member of the school committee at the time, said at the March 2014 meeting, “I don’t see any problem with [the school] being a host site, But it should be at no net cost to the taxpayers. We shouldn’t be subsidizing like we’ve been doing for the last few years.”
Three months later, in June 2014, McFarland told the school committee that, having monitored the Redzone equipment’s electricity usage over several weeks, he and Oppewall estimated the annual cost of that electricity to be about $726. That was roughly 1.7 percent of the school’s total electricity costs.
The minutes of the school committee’s June 2014 meeting state that the committee “would support a two-year agreement [with Redzone] for $1,000 per year.” But there is no record of the committee ever taking a vote on that.
McFarland said in a written report to the school committee in June 2014 that he wanted the school’s partnership with Redzone to continue.
“As part of the MLTI (Maine Learning Technology Initiative) program, we are supposed to support internet connectivity for homes, and at the time of the [Redzone] agreement with the town, the purpose was indeed to fill in the holes that existed…
“Some of our families, as well as families from other schools, depend on Redzone for internet, and I think a solution that would not cost us money or create liability issues is acceptable.”
Current school committee member Charlie Wray said at the committee’s Nov. 7 meeting, “In the dark ages of the internet, when there was very little bandwidth in this town, Redzone was one of the first providers. The school board at the time, which I served on, felt that [allowing Redzone to use space in the school] was a community service. They were the only game in town.”
But now, more than 10 years later, Wray said the situation has changed and he thinks Gousse is “doing the right thing” in terminating the agreement with Redzone.
“I think the landscape is different in terms of who is providing [internet service] and how you can get service,” he said.
School committee member Heather Jones called Gousse’s decision a “good call.”