BAR HARBOR, Maine — The availability of high-speed Internet is a problem through much of rural Maine, with many communities suffering from slow connections that have them feeling on the wrong side of the digital divide.
But while many towns are considering ways to boost their broadband capacity, not many are considering a price tag as hefty as the one that was pitched earlier this month to the local Town Council.
The projected cost of providing direct fiber-optic Internet access to every address in town, even to houses off in the woods by themselves? Somewhere between $13 million and $15 million. That’s almost as much as the $15.5 million Bar Harbor appropriated in property taxes this year for its annual operating budget.
This estimate does not include an additional $500,000 or so that town officials estimate they would have to spend each year to maintain and operate the proposed fiber-optic network.
A report on the potential cost of deploying fiber-optic cable to all parts of Bar Harbor was presented Jan. 19 to the Town Council by representatives of Tilson, an information technology services firm based in Portland. The $37,000 report was put together at the behest of the town’s Communications & Technology Task Force, which the council created years ago to examine ways to boost broadband access in Bar Harbor.
There have been many initiatives and programs established in Maine in recent years to boost broadband access throughout the state, which government and information technology officials say is crucial to developing Maine’s economy.
In 2009, the federal government awarded more than $25 million in stimulus money to extend fiber-optic cable along the coast and New Brunswick border to the northern tip of Maine and then loop it back through the interior part of the state through Rumford to the New Hampshire border.
Maine Fiber Co., which operates the so-called “Three-Ring Binder” network, is offering discounts to retail service providers as an incentive to expand broadband access from the main loop into rural communities and neighborhoods. The firm has set aside $500,000 to help supplement projects approved by the ConnectME Authority, which hands out about $1 million in grants per year to subsidize broadband expansion projects in places that have only dial-up connections or no connection at all.
Other municipalities besides Bar Harbor are pursuing or considering the installations of their own fiber-optic networks.
Voters on Islesboro last summer decided to spend more than $200,000 on the initial planning phase of an island-wide fiber-optic expansion project that, if voters give the final go-ahead, could cost $3 million. In Ellsworth, a $250,000 grant is funding the installation of a 2-mile section of fiber-optic cable through the middle of the city’s urban core.
Old Town is considering whether to spend $80,000 to extend fiber from neighboring Orono into its downtown village. In more densely populated southern Maine, Portland, Sanford and South Portland all are pursuing similar projects.
Still, there remains throughout most of Maine the formidable “last-mile” hurdle of building out high-capacity Internet infrastructure to outlying rural communities and neighborhoods where there are few potential customers to pick up the tab.
Even Bar Harbor has isolated neighborhoods where Internet connection speeds lag far behind. This is despite the fact that the town plays host to millions of visitors to Acadia National Park each year and that its two world-renowned biomedical research institutions — The Jackson Laboratory and Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory — each have direct high-capacity fiber optic Internet connections.
Despite the availability of grants, subsidies and discounts, there still is not enough economic incentive for private-sector Internet service providers to invest in expanding their broadband service to these areas, even if some of the infrastructure already is in place. The high cost of installing expensive broadband network equipment, or even just maintaining it, for a small number of potential customers would result in extraordinarily high monthly subscriber bills that few people are willing to pay.
In considering this predicament, the Bar Harbor task force decided to cut to the chase. If high-capacity broadband access is to be available throughout the entire town, including on sparsely populated, dead-end dirt roads, it will be up to the town to make sure local residents have access to the economic opportunities that such capacity provides.
Steve Cornell, the town’s IT administrator and chair of the task force, told the council on Jan. 19 that despite the different cost estimates for their proposals, the local task force and officials in Islesboro share the same general objective: to publicly finance what many consider an essential service, just as many municipalities already do with water and wastewater systems and with roads.
The lack of broadband access in many neighborhoods adversely affects home values and the ability of those homeowners to have Internet-based jobs, he said.
“[Bar Harbor residents are] going to pay for [high-capacity broadband] one way or another,” Cornell told the councilors, either by paying private companies for the service or by funding a municipal project through a combination of property taxes and user fees. How much the town might charge in user fees for access to a fiber-optic network and how much would be funded through taxes has not been determined.
Gary Friedman, vice chair of the council, did an on-the-spot estimate that if the town took out $15 million in bonds to pay for the project, it would result in his property tax bill increasing by about $400 each year for the term of the loan. That would be a significant tax increase, he allowed, but it would be cheaper than what many people are paying for Internet service now. Annual household Internet budgets in the realm of $1,000 are fairly common in the area.
Councilor David Bowden pointed out that not every taxpayer in town would benefit from the kind of overall savings predicted by Friedmann. Older residents who have no desire for high-speed broadband access would not benefit by having their property tax bills jump to pay for the network, he said.
But, he added, there could be benefits to the overall community.
“The plus here is that I think it would draw younger people to our area,” Bowden said. “Those are some of the things I’ve been wrestling with.”
Council chairman Paul Paradis seemed skeptical that local voters on the whole would support such an expense, even if it addresses a need many residents have complained about.
“The hardest part is the money,” Paradis said.
The estimated cost of between $13 million and $15 million would result in every road in Bar Harbor being outfitted with fiber-optic cable, access to which would be available to every address along the road. The main variables that would affect the final cost are whether the project would include stringing fiber-optic cable down private driveways to buildings, as opposed to just to the end of the driveway, and how much the town would have to spend on electronic equipment to light up and provide access to its fiber-optic network.
The task force also has proposed building the network in three phases. The first phase would be to connect fiber-optic cables at all municipal buildings, including schools. The second phase would be to build out the network in the densely developed downtown village, and the third would be to expand it townwide.
Liza Quinn, a Tilson representative who presented the findings in the report to the council, said the study focused on deploying fiber-optic cable rather than copper-based or wireless networks because Mount Desert Island’s topography poses obstacles to wireless signals and because copper-based networks are reaching their capacity limits.
Fiber-optic technology, on the other hand, is the highest-capacity format available and offers the ability to scale up capacity significantly as demand continues to grow, she added.
Town Manager Cornell Knight said that, if town officials opt to put such a bond proposal out to a referendum vote, the matter would be decided by registered voters at Bar Harbor’s annual town meeting, possibly as early as this June.
He said that the task force is scheduled to meet publicly with the council at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2, an hour before the councilors’ regular meeting, so the members of the two panels can further discuss the idea among themselves. An informational meeting, at which the public will be able to comment and ask questions, has been scheduled for 7-10:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4, at the municipal building.