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Bar Harbor, Maine (pop. 5,500) has been trying to get a municipal fiber network off (and into) the ground for more than half a decade. If local officials throw weight behind the most recent move, we may see momentum continue to build for faster, more reliable, affordable, and universally available Internet access for government use, commercial development, and maybe, down the road, residents as well.
We last checked in with the town in 2016, when its franchise agreement with Charter had expired and negotiations for a new agreement had stalled. At the time, Bar Harbor was considering a $100,000 engineering study to flesh out the possibility of a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network or a $50,000 study to do so for a government-only network, but at the last minute the town’s Warrant Committee and Council decided not to move ahead on either at the last minute. Since then, the situation has remained more or less in stasis.
But with recent changes, Charter has signaled that it will begin to charge Bar Harbor $45,000 a year for access via – a ten-fold increase over the $4,500/year the town currently pays. With the company refusing to negotiate, on December 15 the Town Council, at the recommendation of the Communication and Technologies Committee (CTC), voted unanimously to place a $750,000 proposal to build their own institutional network onto the 2022 budget draft review. The general public will have the chance to vote on the measure in June.
Locally Owned Infrastructure at a Fraction of the Price
Overlooked by the incumbent telephone company, Mount Washington in the southwest corner of Massachusetts is becoming one of the smallest FTTH communities in the country by investing in a municipal fiber network. A strong majority of the town committed to three years of service and the state contributed $230,000 to build the network after a lot of local groundwork and organizing. Select Board member Gail Garrett joins us for episode 212 of the Community Broadband Bits to discuss their process and the challenges of crafting an economical plan on such a small scale. It turns out that the rural town had some advantages - low make-ready costs from the lack of wires on poles and no competition to have to worry about. So they are moving forward and with some cooperation from the telephone company and electric utility, they could build it pretty quickly. We also discuss what happens to those homes that choose not to take service when it is rolled out - they will have to pay more later to be connected. Read the rest of our coverage of Mt Washington here.
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Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."
On June 7th, Bar Harbor residents voted against funding the first $50,000 of a $100,000 engineering study for a fiber network to connect municipal facilities. A contentious 47-57 vote at the annual town meeting erased the Capital Improvement Program (CIP) from the annual budget, postponing progress on potential publicly owned Internet infrastructure.
Decision Leaves Locals Stranded
The town is still clinging to hopes that it can arrange a new agreement with incumbent provider Charter Communications, who owns the majority of fiber on Mount Desert Island, where the city is located. The franchise agreement, inherited by Charter Communications when it merged with Time Warner Cable, expired in 2014. Negotiations on a new agreement appeared to have stalled when Charter wanted to begin charging the town access to incumbent fiber. In the prior agreement, municipal use of fiber to municipal facilities was a service included without an additional fee.
Bar Harbor officials are finding themselves in the same position as other communities similarly situated. After years of dependence on incumbent infrastructure connecting city buildings as part of franchise agreements, incumbents are now trying to squeeze as much as possible out of that dependence. Time Warner Cable tried the same strategy in Martin County, Florida, but the community invested in its own fiber-optic network and is now saving millions.
Apparently, Bar Harbor's leadership was split over the decision to include the funds for the study in the budget. During the budget process, the Warrant Committee took several close votes on whether or not to include the funding. Ultimately, the entire community decided that they prefer to maintain a balance in their CIP fund.
Mount Desert Islander reported on the June 7th vote,
“'A majority of the council thinks it’s prudent to have some money in the account in case things change with our agreement," [Councilor] Stivers said.
Preliminary Study Lighting the Way
Islesboro residents voted on May 30th to move forward with their municipal network plan. According to the Islesboro Press Herald, approximately 75 percent of voters attending the annual town meeting approved a motion to spend $206,830 on an engineering study and contractor search. Approximately 200 residents attended.
As we reported in March, the community has been working since 2012 on a plan for a fiber network to improve connectivity for businesses and the almost 600 residents on the island. The infrastructure will belong to the Town of Isleboro; GWI will offer services via the network. The entire project estimate is $2.5 - $3 million to be funded with a municipal bond.
Many of the island's residents now obtain Internet access via DSL from Fairpoint, which has been described as spotty and unreliable, for $20 - $70 per month. GWI already operates on the island, offering wireless service.
This is the first in a several step approval process:
Town officials plan to hold a second public vote in the fall on 20-year municipal bond for up to $3 million that would fund the network’s construction, [Selectman Arch Gillies] said.
Completion is scheduled for the end of 2016.
“We’re a community intent on keeping up with the world, and maybe getting ahead of the world,” [Gilles] said.
Islesboro, the Maine island community of 566, will decide in May whether or not they want to bond to build a municipal fiber network, reports The Working Waterfront. The network will be owned by the town who plans to partner with GWI to operate and manage it.
Currently, about 2/3 of residents on the island use DSL from Fairpoint. While a few locations can reach 15 Mbps download, most residents pay from $20 - $70 for around 3 Mbps download. Upload speeds are much less. GWI also offers point-to-point wireless from the mainland and one side of the island has cellphone.
The firm estimated costs to cover the island to be between $2.5 and $3 million, which would include construction and leasing of poles from Central Maine Power (CMP). Community leaders will ask voters to approve a municipal bond to fund the project:
The $3 million bond would raise property taxes on a house assessed at $300,000 by about $13.77 per month ($164.25 per year). As a per-month cost, with both the pay-back on the bond and the standard service fee for Internet, the resident of a house valued at $300,000 would pay $48.77, according to [Arch] Gillies, [chairman of the Board of Selectmen]. (This appears to be for the lowest level of service.)
After reviewing the recommendations, community leaders decided it was in the community's best interest to deploy a network that would be owned by the public. They then engaged in a Request for Information process and received responses from three vendors. Eventually, they chose to work with GWI, in part because it is a local company. Fairpont and Time Warner Cable also responded, but their proposals did not stipulate that the infrastructure would belong to the town. There were other inferiorities in their proposals.
On November 18th, 90% of voters at Princeton's special town meeting approved a measure to fund $1.2 million in make-ready costs bringing the community one step closer to fiber connectivity. The number voters who attended the meeting broke the previous attendance record set 15 years ago by 30%.
We introduced the central Massachusetts town of 3,300 in 2013. The community suffered from poor Internet connectivity negatively impacting its schools, real estate market, and economic development. Since then, the community voted to create a Municipal Light Plant and to appropriate funds to keep the project moving forward.
Community leaders have investigated several options and last fall entered into a relationship with the Matrix Design Group. According to the Memorandum of Understanding [PDF], Matrix will design, build, and operate the FTTH network for a period of 20 years. At the end of that time period, Princeton Broadband Municipal Light Plant has the option of renewing that relationship or purchasing the network for $1.
As their contribution, Princeton will provide rights-of-way, police details during construction, powered telecom shelters, and will pay for utility pole make-ready costs. According to an article in the Landmark:
The make ready work includes replacing approximately 80 utility poles, and moving telephone and electrical lines on 450 poles, providing housing for the electrical components needed to operate the system, and paying for police details during the make ready work.
The borrowing is expected to cost the owner of a home valued at $300,000, about $10 a month or $115 a year increase on their taxes for 12 years. Internet service plus telephone will cost $115 a month. Once a contract is negotiated with Matrix, construction on the make ready phase would start in January 2015 and the project would be completed by January 2016.
In 1985, Auburn Electric became one of the first communities in the midwest to deploy fiber. At the time, the purpose was to improve electric and voice systems substation communications within the municipal utility. That investment laid the foundation for a municipal network that now encourages economic development and saves public dollars while enhancing services.
Auburn expanded its fiber network beyond electric systems in 1998. The utility began using the network to serve city and county government operations. It is not well known, but Auburn offered gigabit service to its public sector customers way back in 1998.
The benefits from the deployment prompted community leaders to develop an Information Technology Master Plan in 1998 that would answer the question of what other ways the fiber could serve the community? As part of the Master Plan, Auburn leaders collected information from other communities that were capitalizing on their own local fiber. While Auburn made no immediate plans, they kept an open mind, waiting until the time was right.
In 2004, Cooper Tire and Rubber (now Cooper Standard) was about to be sold from its parent company. The $1.6 billion auto component manufacturer needed a data center but bandwidth was insufficient and inconsistent in Auburn. Cooper considered leaving because the incumbents, Mediacom and AT&T, could not or would not provide the broadband capacity the company needed. If Cooper left town, an estimated $7 million in wages and benefits from 75 high-paying tech jobs would also leave. At the time, Auburn was home to 12,500 people.
According to Schweitzer, the City tried to persuade the telephone company to find a solution with Cooper but the two could not reach an agreement. Rather than lose Cooper, the City of Auburn stepped in to fill the connectivity gap in 2005.
In a 2007 interview with Public Power magazine, Schweitzer noted advantages in Auburn that facilitated the project:
Not long ago, we told you about Leverett, Massachusetts, the small town of 1,851, that has been discussing the possibility of building a community network. Residents and businesses currently use a combination of satellite, dial-up, DSL, and wireless, and about 6% of the population has no Internet access at all. People are tired of lost opportunities in a town strategically situated near several colleges. The town just approved the proposal to invest in a municipal network.
Last Saturday, April 28th, the measure to build the network was approved at Leverett's Annual Town Meeting. The needed two-thirds vote came easily, with 306-33 in favor, at the packed meeting at the Leverett Elementary School auditorium. Enthusiasm and expectations are high. From a Fran Ryan article in the Gazettenet.com:
For many, the lack of adequate Internet access has created problems with work, school and even the ability to sell their homes.
"Right now we have hopeless telephone service, useless cellphone service, and no internet service," said resident Raymond Bradley. "This will completely change our lives,"
The current plan is to borrow $3.6 million to create a fiber-optic network that will connect every home and provide triple play services across town. As you may recall from our earlier article, Internet access is only part of the problem - Leverett has had longstanding difficulties with telephone service due to decaying infrastructure. The situation is so bad, the State Department of Communications ordered Verizon to make repairs in over 100 towns in western Massachusetts. With this vote, however, Leverett has decided to take control of its own fate.
Leverett received a $40,000.00 planning grant from the Massachussetts Broadband Institute and benefited from the expertise and efforts of the Wired West group. Leverett's last mile project will connect with MBI's middle mile project.
According to the Leverett Broadband Committee, the investment will pay off rather quickly. This from an April 18th Ben Storrow GazetteNet.com article: