A business advertises WIFI access in downtown Bangor. City officials declared broadband an essential infrastructure Monday night, just like water, sewer and electricity. This declaration is the first step in making a financial investment to build the city's own fiber optic network. Credit: Gabor Degre

Maine’s third largest city is considering investing its own money to install high-speed, citywide broadband, which would slash service costs and increase internet speed for local users.

Bangor city officials Monday night declared broadband an “essential infrastructure.” The gesture is largely symbolic, but it’s a necessary first step should the city choose to invest in the actual idea, Community and Economic Development Officer Tyler Collins said.

“Broadband and high-speed fiber internet is critical for Bangor, and we thought it was very important to make this case,” Collins said. “But we know very little at this point. It just sets a baseline that identifies we are prepared to do more research on this project.”

Councilors agreed on the declaration at the July 23 meeting, which was approved as a council order. Councilor Cary Weston did not support the declaration, saying, “I don’t think this is a place where the city needs to be competing.”

Cities, states and countries that prioritize and provide advanced access to broadband “are surpassing those that do not, in terms of social, economic and knowledge development,” the order reads. “Bangor must prioritize this infrastructure as an essential service, just as we have with water, sewer and electricity.”

If Bangor chooses to invest and construct new fiber optic infrastructure, it will become the largest city in Maine to provide broadband as a public utility.

If it’s built, the city would collect a utility fee from residents to maintain the broadband system, just as it does for maintenance of city stormwater and sewer systems. Customers would additionally pay the internet service provider directly for access to the internet.

“They’re still able to pick their provider, but it would run over city fiber,” City Manager Cathy Conlow said. “It would ensure better coverage over the city, better speeds, consistent speeds and more stable pricing.”

Still, Conlow said, it’s not yet a sure thing. “We’re really just exploring,” she said.

Eric Conrad, director of communications and education services for Maine Municipal Association, said Bangor’s mindset, even if its preliminary, reflects a trend across Maine that’s gaining momentum.

“Broadband is almost as important to our economic development as building a road to a factory used to be,” Conrad said. “Whether you’re in a rural area or not, internet connectivity at a high speed is maybe the No. 1 infrastructure need for Maine towns and cities in the 21st century.”

Too few residents paying for the service or poor management of the network once installed are probably the biggest risks for a publicly maintained broadband network, said Heather Johnson, executive director of the ConnectME Authority, which is administered by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

But if all goes well, the upside is enduring, Johnson said. “If you do it right, it should grow the economic value of your community, and it should improve your taxbase. It becomes a return on investment as opposed to an expense.”

City officials will put out a request for proposal, and continue researching the plausibility and cost of the project in the coming weeks.

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