PORTLAND, Maine — As two Maine islands have charted a course for getting faster Internet, a study released Wednesday sets out the options for the other 14 to follow suit.
The Island Institute-funded study suggests Maine’s islands could benefit by collaborating on the buildout of their own high-speed data connections, if they decide to follow in the footsteps of Islesboro, which is developing plans to build its own fiber-optic network.
And if they decide against the relatively high cost of top speeds, there are other options.
“The next step is working with [the islands] to come to the best possible solution,” said Briana Warner, economic development director for the Island Institute.
That may include applying new technologies to improve old networks, creating new wireless networks or pooling resources to go in together on a bulk purchase of Internet capacity from existing fiber-optic networks on the mainland.
The report comes as many communities around the state are considering whether to invest public dollars in broadband networks and as federal and state authorities have moved toward treating Internet service as a public utility.
Jason Mann, a spokesman for the Island Institute, said the nonprofit spent “a substantial amount” on the study that likely would have been out of reach for the islands to have taken on individually to take stock of what they have already and what their upgrade options are.
The group didn’t state how much it spent for the study by Portland-based information technology and network design firm Tilson, but Mann said the expense reflects the importance of faster Internet for maintaining island communities.
The report did not include Casco Bay’s Great Diamond Island and Islesboro, where plans are already in the works for upgrading broadband networks.
Page Clason, a member of the committee leading Islesboro’s effort, said he views faster broadband as essential for making year-round island residency more desirable and, in some cases, possible.
“We need young people to keep this state alive. All of our communities do,” Clason said. “We looked at a number of parts of our community infrastructure to say, ‘What do we need to do to keep ourselves attractive to that population?’ and it was pretty obvious.”
The report issued Wednesday estimated increased broadband adoption would support 170 new jobs on the islands and result in about $90 million in new economic activity over 10 years, a figure it notes is open to debate.
Clason said better access also could serve to keep residents on the island, making it easier for them to work on the island.
That project would use fiber-optic cable recently run to the island by Central Maine Power Co., and connecting to the statewide Three Ring Binder fiber-optic network that was built in part with federal stimulus funds. Clason said the town is working out terms with CMP for the connection.
Clason said Islesboro is still working toward issuing its request for proposals to build that network, which would put hard numbers to the project cost, which was previously estimated to be as much as $3 million.
The town would then go to the voters with a bond proposal, with an amount he said depends on further analysis of how much of the project could be supported by subscribers and how much from tax dollars.
According to the schedule, Clason said the island’s fiber would be built and active by this time next year. He said he expects that Biddeford-based GWI would operate and maintain the municipally owned network.
For other island communities, Clason said he suggests using the report to start the discussion about a local approach to increasing broadband service and exploring what funding options are available, including from the state and federal government.
“This study provides a good base for leadership,” Clason said.
Those considerations come with moving parts for each community.
For instance, islands with service from FairPoint Communications also could be in line for upgrades, and some have upgrades to DSL lines already in the works.
FairPoint earlier this year agreed to accept $80 million in federal money to expand in rural areas deemed too expensive for the private sector to go alone, but where a subsidy could support a sustainable business.
The study looked at the needs of islands Islesford, Great Cranberry, Vinalhaven, North Haven, Monhegan, Matinicus, Frenchboro, Swan’s Island, Chebeague, Long Island, Isle Au Haut, Cliff and Peaks, and the seasonally occupied Sutton Island, north of Cranberry Isles.
See the full report below.