Fiber Internet Discussion Details Benefits, Costs

By Lura Jackson

 

A significant milestone in the journey of lighting up the dark fiber network in Calais and Baileyville was passed on August 28th when the town council of Baileyville voted unanimously to approve the project. The fiber project was discussed at length by area IT experts and the Calais City Council at a meeting in the Knights of Columbus hall on September 20th.

The next major hurdle that the project faces is securing funding for the Calais portion of the network, which could come from an upcoming public referendum vote or from other potential sources to be discussed at the September 28th City Council meeting.

There are two potentials paths that the Calais project could take at this juncture, each of which has its own cost, Julie Jordan, Director of the Downeast Economic Development Corporation, explained. The first is the “Cadillac” option wherein the project would reach 97 percent of residences in Calais and provide a connecting node at each building. That option – which is the equivalent of what was approved in Baileyville – carries a price tag of $2.3 million. The second option would not include the connecting node, thus requiring providers and consumers to offset the associated $465 cost when they wish to initially connect to the network at their residence. The cost of the second option would be $1.4 million.

Jordan emphasized that the project is anticipated to pay for itself and not result in any tax increases to Calais residents. The structure of the fiber network is unique in the state in the way that it will be built as an interlocal utility owned by both Calais and Baileyville. A separate operator will be hired to work with providers and charge a leasing fee of $25 per connected residence. That fee will pay the cost of the operator and pay down the debt of building and expanding the network. “The worst case scenario – if the utility generated no income – would be a $100 increase on tax bills,” Jordan said.

Early indications of public interest demonstrate that there is a strong desire for the utility in Calais at this point. Tim McAfee, CEO of Pioneer Broadband, the company hired to build the network, provided an example of how a similar network was received in Houlton. Out of 2,820 residences, only 120 did not activate their fiber lines after the nodes were built outside their homes.

Creating and expanding the fiber network will provide the communities of Calais and Baileyville with an infrastructure that can be utilized in the future by ever-increasing technologies. “There’s so much potential in fiber optic technology,” McAfee said. He explained that under ideal circumstances copper networks similar to the existing one utilized by Calais residents can attain speeds of up to 30 gigabytes (or .03 terabytes) per second in laboratory conditions. Fiber optic networks, however, can readily reach hundreds of terabytes per second, making them attractive to providers and consumers alike. “We want to put providers at the mercy of an infrastructure that is rock solid and designed to future-proof communication for your community,” McAfee said.

The Calais City Council responded favorably to the presentation, expressing their understanding of how important faster internet speeds are to attracting and keeping businesses and residents that utilize the internet for play and for work. Having slow internet speeds has contributed to some organizations leaving the area, as Councilor Marcia Rogers explained. “I know for a fact that WHCA moved to Hancock County because they couldn’t get high speed internet here.”

While most present were in favor of the project, not all were. “I’m not in favor of spending tax dollars on it,” said Bill Cody, IT Director at Washington County Community College. He said his primary concerns were related to who would repair the network if it went down. “Who would we be contracting?”

Jordan explained that a repair contract for the network would be put out to bid and acted on appropriately. Dan Sullivan, IT Director at the Baileyville mill, added that in the 13 years that the mill has had fiber, the connection has been lost once. “As far as keeping the connection going, it’s been very robust. It hasn’t been something that’s required a lot of maintenance.”

Should the fiber network move forward in both communities, consumers can expect to benefit from the ensuing competition between providers. “The competition will increase customer satisfaction rate and lower the price to where everybody wins,” said McAfee. While the price and speeds of individual connections will vary between the providers chosen by each consumer, Jordan suggested that speeds of 25 megabytes for $55 or less per month are realistic to expect. By contrast, most consumers in Calais are now paying $70 or more for download speeds of 15 megabytes or less.

Next week’s issue will provide continued coverage of how the City of Calais will be funding the project after additional discussion at the upcoming City Council meeting.