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Broadband Committee recommends municipal-owned network for expansion

By Fran Gonzalez | Mar 31, 2021
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez Union Hall, Searsport's Town Office, at 3 Reservoir St. in the town center.

Searsport — The Searsport Broadband Committee, along with selectmen, heard a presentation from Machias-based Axiom Technologies LLC President Mark Ouellette March 25 about options to bring broadband internet to the town.

Axiom has been working with the committee for the last several months to develop a planning report for the town to consider that would meet the committee’s goal of providing a fast, affordable fiber-optic network that could serve every home equally well.

Two potential paths to faster internet were presented in the report. One option would be to build out areas currently not serviced by Spectrum Communications, one of two main internet providers in town. According to the report, this option would cost the town $497,522.

The second option is to build a new fiber-optic system that the town would own, similar to the Islesboro municipal network. The cost for this option would be approximately $2.8 million, but the report noted available Connect Maine Authority grants could bring down that price tag.

Besides Spectrum, the report said, Consolidated Communications also currently provides internet service in Searsport, though the committee does not favor either company to provide future expansion, given the response from subscribers. One of the frustrations the committee found is Spectrum's unwillingness to consider expansion.

Ouellette said whether the community chooses to work with a current provider, attract a new internet service provider or form a public utility, deciding what ownership model works best to meet the community's needs is important.

Several possible ownership models are presented in the report. One is a network owned and operated by the town; option two is a network owned by the town either partly or wholly, but operated by an internet service provider; and a third option is a network owned by investors and operated by an ISP (the typical commercial service model).

The report cites the ability to choose which ISP to contract with and to change ISPs if performance is unsatisfactory as a benefit of municipal ownership.

Regarding cost, Ouellette said, either building a totally new system or expanding current provider networks will require significant public subsidy. “No provider will build out a system using their capital,” he said; the return on that investment would take too long.

Town Manager James Gillway asked who would set the rate an ISP could charge. “Is the Maine Public Utilities Commission involved in this in any way, or is it still the Wild West for rate setting?”

“Wild West,” Ouellette said. “ISPs are not regulated in any way.”

If Searsport were working with Axiom, he said as an example, there would be a negotiation about the rate that subscribers would pay. “Everybody wants $20 a month internet,” he said, “but you have to recognize the expense side also. That is not enough revenue for an ISP to make back and pay their expenses.

“In order to apply for funding, you're going to need to have a pretty clear plan moving forward,” Oullette said, and that includes having an ISP partner in place. “The town will also have to support whatever you're doing at some level,” he said. “So there will be town money involved whether that’s through a bond or tax increase … .”

Selectman Linda Payson said her biggest concern is how much taxes would increase, “no matter which direction we go in.” She said she is excited that people will have an internet option other than Spectrum and added, “I’d like to see it available to everybody… .”

Broadband Committee Chairman George Kerper said the “bundles” offered by Spectrum are a way to run up your bill “and you don’t need half that stuff, anyways.”

In a conversation with The Republican Journal, Gillway said the town had identified the gaps or underserved areas in town, and they total “a couple of miles.”

“All our main streets are covered, some by multiple carriers like Consolidated Communications and Spectrum," he said. "A few more have the ability to access a wireless network with Bluestreak and Red Zone, but it's not everybody and it is not fair.”

Last fall the town also expanded hotspots with a $12,500 grant from Maine Community Foundation, extending along Route 1 from Water to Mosman streets and from the Hamilton Marine store to the town wharf area. Service was also extended to the Searsport Community Building on Prospect Street, and North Searsport Christian Center on Mt. Ephraim Road.

"Our goal is to get everybody served," he said. "Islesboro is ahead of us," with its municipally owned network.

Gillway said he knew of someone who was quoted $3,000 to connect to a broadband line using a cable network. Starlink, the Elon Musk satellite network currently being beta-tested in parts of the state, was also considered, Gillway said. At a cost of $500 for equipment and $100 every month, "It's better than $3,000 to hook your line in," he said. In his opinion, the best way to move forward is to own the system.

In an email to The Journal, Kerper said the Broadband Committee is recommending to the selectmen that “the town go with a municipal run fiber network that would provide every home and business in Searsport with access to affordable, high-speed service.”

“The town would have to vote on the bond issue” at a town meeting, he said, “which would be something less than $2,846,401, due to grants ... ."

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