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
A 2015 preliminary study evaluated the possibility of Bar Harbor building a fast, affordable, and reliable Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network of its own.
“Stakeholders in the Town of Bar Harbor feel that their current Internet capabilities are inadequate to meet changing business demands. There are onerous cost burdens associated with subscribing to the services one of the incumbent carriers for the Town, residents, and businesses alike. Such ongoing costs are significant, and can be avoided with the right broadband investment initially, creating a solution where the Town is not dependent upon a powerful carrier with prohibitive prices.”
The study proposed a two-phase approach, which included beginning with connectivity for anchor institutions and later connecting residents and businesses. It also recommended the engineering study to better estimate costs.
Clear Skies on the Horizon?
The franchise agreement between the community and Charter Communications is still unresolved but according to Seth Libby of the Warrant Committee, the city is part of a consortium of municipalities in the area that are working collectively to re-negotiate their franchise agreements.
Despite the disappointing vote, optimism persists. When we spoke to a local official over the phone, he was confident that the funding for the engineering study would pass in the coming fiscal year.