Bar Harbor town councilors Gary Friedmann, Matthew Hochman and Joe Minutolo (shown left to right) listen to another councilor speak in this 2018 file photo. The council voted unanimously Tuesday in initial support for a plan to build a $750,000 fiber optic network that would provide broadband Internet access to all 25 of the town-owned buildings and municipal operations sites in Bar Harbor. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

The town of Bar Harbor is planning a $750,000 project to connect fiber optic cable to town-owned properties so its staff can have broadband internet access at work.

The town has such access now, which town employees use primarily to access the town’s internal computer network, but will have to start paying $45,000 a year to Charter Communications to continue using the company’s fiber network infrastructure because of an expiring agreement that has allowed the town to use the fiber at no cost beyond what it pays its internet service providers. The town currently pays approximately $4,500 per year for internet access.

Instead of paying $45,000 annually to lease fiber from Charter, the town instead could put that money toward developing its own fiber optic network that would connect to all of the town’s roughly two dozen buildings, members of the town’s communications and technology committee told the town council on Tuesday. The locations of those town facilities include the transfer station on Great Meadow Drive south of the downtown village, Mount Desert Island High School on Route 233, the fire station in the village Town Hill, and the town garage in the village in Hulls Cove, among others.

The projected cost of building the network would be around $750,000, but the town’s expenses in building and maintaining the network likely would be significantly less if it finds cost efficiencies and entities that could lease unused fiber from the town. Those specific cost savings to the town would become more apparent after the town puts out a request for proposals, likely in the latter half of 2021, members of the committee said.

A consultant hired by the town has predicted that the town’s share of the development costs could be cut “by at least 50 percent” through partnerships and that annual operating costs of the system — estimated to be $32,000 — could be substantially reduced, if not eliminated, members of the committee told the council.

The main goal of the project is to better control the town’s technology costs and, by extension, the property tax burden on local residents, said Stephen Cornell, the town’s technology systems administrator. But it could be a starting point for improving internet access for local businesses and residents if it helps draw other service providers to Bar Harbor to lease fiber from the town and perhaps build off the network to extend broadband service to underserved neighborhoods, he said.

The inquiries about improving local broadband access that the town has received from residents since the arrival in Maine of the COVID-19 pandemic have been “through the roof,” Cornell said.

“It’s not a town-wide fiber network build-out, nor is it planned to be,” Cornell said. “That said, we would hope and encourage that a third-party provider or ISP would be interested in providing consumer service to residents.”

A few years ago, the town had estimated that it would cost $13 million to build a fiber optic network that served every address in town, even in remote neighborhoods. That idea never gained traction because of the prohibitive cost.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday to budget $750,000 for the project, which would have to be approved by local voters next June before it moves forward.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....