Panel Pitches $13 Million Fiber-Optic Plan to Bar Harbor Council

By Trotter, Bill | Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME), February 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Panel Pitches $13 Million Fiber-Optic Plan to Bar Harbor Council


Trotter, Bill, Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME)


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. …

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