Broadband questions

Discussions in Bar Harbor about creating a town-owned broadband network to provide high-speed Internet to town facilities and every household jumped into high gear earlier this month. A report from the town’s consultants is available on the municipal website.

The firm hired by the town, Tilson, laid out a plan to upgrade the community in phases, with a cost of more than $2.3 million to connect town-owned facilities and schools, and a cost of more than $15 million to cover the entire community.

The current recommendation of the town’s broadband committee is to spend up to $100,000 of taxpayer money for a more detailed study of the municipal phase. That expenditure is included in the current budget proposal covering the next year.

Granted, a town-owned fiber network would provide the fastest, most up-to-date connection for town facilities. But for sites such as sewer pump stations or water treatment plants, other, less expensive sources may be more than adequate.

The current report gives a rough overview of which areas of town have broadband service and which do not. Between Time Warner, Fairpoint, Red Zone Wireless and cellular photo data, much of the community already has some options. Access to the service, however, does not mean people necessarily want it. A Pew Research Center study found that 15 percent of adults nationwide don’t use the Internet, which means the customer pool may be smaller than expected.

Particularly useful at this juncture would be a determination of the number of households on major public roads with no Internet options available. And how many customers of currently available services are satisfied with their service?

Without those real-world statistics, the consultant’s projections of the number of potential customers available to shoulder the costs of a town-owned network may be far too optimistic.

There is some concern that current cable television and broadband Internet provider Time Warner may not continue to provide free internet access to municipal facilities in the next contract renewal, already long overdue. Perhaps more time and effort needs to be spent on completing such matters at hand before undertaking discussion about a completely new system.

The biggest question, of course, is cost. Were the town to issue a bond to cover the projected cost of a town-wide system, that bond would nearly double the community’s indebtedness. That move would leave the town near the cap on its legal authority to borrow – the municipal equivalent of maxing out a credit card.

Currently, other town utilities – the water and sewerage systems – are paid for by users, rather than funded by all property tax payers. Asking all residents, even those who do not avail themselves of the services, to pay higher tax bills to underwrite faster Internet poses a major political and ethical hurdle.

Consultants, of course, only explore questions they are directed to examine. Rather than throw $100,000 at engineering a limited municipal system, why not ask them to answer some more specific questions.

How many people without broadband want it? How much are they willing to pay? What’s the least expensive way of expanding coverage to areas not currently served? The Tilson report mentions less expensive service options, such as wireless, but dismisses them as undesirable.

National consultants recommend that communities of fewer than 5,000 residents, such as Bar Harbor, consider regional, rather than local systems. Mount Desert is investigating a town-wide broadband network. Are there possible advantages there?

There is no question that broadband Internet access is the gold standard and that having it available can help buoy a community’s economic advancement. But one never knows from whose garage the next Microsoft or Apple system may emerge. Were a check for $15 million magically to appear, we would proceed without question. But residents need more information to weigh broadband’s current availability against the costs associated with providing a system to every structure in town.

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