ISLESBORO, Maine — The offshore island community with just 600 or so year-round residents is trying to build an economic bridge to its future with technology, as Islesboro residents voted overwhelmingly this month to create a $3.8 million municipal broadband network.
The new network, which would use an underwater cable that was run to the island last year by Central Maine Power Co., will connect Islesboro to the statewide Three Ring Binder fiber-optic network. Vern Ziegler, the Islesboro town assessor and a member of the island’s broadband working group, said Wednesday he hopes the new network will be operational sometime within the next 12 to 24 months.
“Our project has been driven from the ground up by the people here on Islesboro,” he said. “I think the town is very excited about being able to move forward. The people have basically said, ‘this is what we want.’ … It’s nice when the municipal government can respond to the people’s wishes.”
Residents who attended the annual town meeting on Saturday, June 18, voted 145 to 23 to authorize the $3.8 million bond to design and construct the network. There was only one question asked about the project at the town meeting, Ziegler said.
“Hundreds and hundreds of hours of education, meetings and public hearings have gone into the project,” he said. “I believe that when the people got to the vote at town meeting, we weren’t going to sway anybody’s mind one way or another. People were either for or against it.”
In the end, it wasn’t even close, despite the high cost of the project, which will be funded in part through subscriber fees to the network and in part through a property tax increase. For the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the tax increase for the broadband network will be just 6 cents per $1,000 worth of property valuation.
Some of the reason for the project’s popularity may be the fact that many Islesboro residents have frustratingly slow internet connections or even no ability to connect to the internet at all. A year ago, one family told the BDN they found an expensive solution to the problem by paying $450 per month for a Verizon Jetpack, which uses mobile telecommunications technology to connect Wi-Fi-enabled devices to the internet.
Islanders have said that having a fast, reliable connection is critical to the long-term survival of their small, year-round community.
“For us, it’s a real bridge to the rest of the world,” Page Clason, another member of the island’s broadband working group, told the BDN in 2015. “Our primary focus is to meet the needs of current residents and hopefully attract some new ones.”
Ziegler said Islesboro’s strategy to build the municipal broadband network is unique and unlikely to be duplicated by mainland communities. A report issued in December by the Island Institute suggested that other island communities could benefit by increased broadband adoption, because the technology would lead to new jobs and economic activity.
“Island communities are used to doing things for themselves,” Ziegler said. “When that [ferry] parks in its pen at 5:30 at night, everybody on this island only has each other. We’re used to relying on each other and helping each other. That’s kind of the island way.”