Promoting a diverse community

By Jeff Burnham

In its lead editorial (“A question of fairness”) on March 9, the Islander raised some concerns about a budget item proposed for inclusion in the town of Mount Desert’s 2017 warrant. That proposal would provide up to $350,000 to bring land-based high-speed broadband (internet) service to those areas of the town that currently have none. This proposal is envisioned as the pilot phase of a two part project: the second phase would provide upgraded service to those areas of the town that currently have broadband at a level many find unsatisfactory. The town’s experience in the pilot phase would help determine how phase two might best be achieved. The ultimate goal is universal, reliable, high-speed broadband throughout all parts of the town.

This initiative was begun in response to numerous complaints from citizens about the unavailability of service in some areas and unacceptably slow and/or unreliable service in others. In response, the Board of Selectmen commissioned a consultant study and subsequently appointed a citizen Broadband Committee to review the consultant’s findings and make recommendations about how the town should proceed. Citizen input was gathered via both public meetings and a direct mail survey. Strong interest was expressed in obtaining universal, high capacity service that could meet current needs and also evolve to meet future needs.

The consultant review of current technologies and their potential for expansion concluded that none of the available providers could meet all of the town’s expressed needs. That goal could be achieved only by construction of a new fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) system.

Following on the consultant’s report, the Broadband Committee met with representatives of each of the current providers, further educated itself on the technologies in use and obtained further information about the costs entailed in expanding availability of those technologies. The superiority of FTTP as the best way to meet all of the town’s current and anticipated future needs remained unassailable. Yet, the costs and logistics entailed in building such a system led the committee to seek a second-best alternative.

That alternative is clearly the fiber/cable hybrid system used by Spectrum (formerly Time Warner). The technology is superior to wireless and DSL. Spectrum already serves many parts of the town, so much of the needed infrastructure already is in place. Unfortunately, on its own, Spectrum is unwilling to expand further because the areas it does not serve lack the population density (measured as dwellings per mile of road) that its business model requires. So, the broadband committee decided to see if Spectrum would be willing to expand service under a cost-sharing arrangement with the town.

The committee provided Spectrum with a list of all the roads that had no land-based broadband service. Spectrum responded that the project would cost no more than $700,000 and offered to pay 50 percent of the final cost. The Broadband Committee then recommended that the town budget include an expenditure of no more that $350,000 to complete this phase of the project. If this undertaking proved satisfactory, the committee would recommend exploring with Spectrum the possibility of a full build-out of the town. This would provide a much needed option for those currently saddled with unsatisfactory technologies.

With this background, we can address the Islander’s concerns.

First, municipalities undertake many initiatives that benefit only a portion of their territory. In Mount Desert, taxpayers have funded a sewer system in Northeast Harbor, new sidewalks in Somesville and construction of a landing area in Otter Creek. A bond to fund engineering for redesign of Main Street in Northeast Harbor has been proposed for the 2017 warrant. And of course, childless property owners subsidize education for those with children. Even if the broadband project currently proposed were not part of a larger plan to benefit the entire town, it would not be inconsistent with current practices.

Second, the Islander is especially concerned that the proposed project includes private roads, failing to recognize that living on a private road is more a burden than a privilege. Those who do so subsidize maintenance of public residential roads and then pay again to maintain their own. The Islander’s assertion that the project would pay to extend service along “long private driveways” is a misunderstanding: extension of service from the road to a dwelling would be a private undertaking.

Third, the Islander seems troubled that the project would benefit seasonal as well as full-time residents. Seasonal residents pay the same taxes. Why should they not receive the same services? Additionally, improved broadband access would encourage many of them to stay longer and a few, perhaps, to become full-time residents.

Finally, the Islander asserts that the consultant suggested that enhanced wireless service would be the most cost-effective option, but takes that suggestion out of context. Wireless is ill-suited to the island’s terrain, because it cannot penetrate forests or hills. It thus would require several additional towers, something that citizens overwhelmingly oppose.

As the FCC and many others have recognized, broadband is as essential today as telephone was in the last century. School children use it to do homework, professionals use it to work from both home and office, and it is an essential technology for most businesses. Younger people will not buy or build homes where broadband is not available. Taxpayer money was essential in the past to extend phone service to rural areas. If towns such as Mount Desert are to thrive in the future, the same will need to be done with broadband today.

Jeff Burnham is the chair of the town of Mount Desert Broadband Committee.

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