Feelings ran high at Southport’s community broadband public hearing at town hall Saturday, April 10.
Selectmen’s Chair Gerry Gamage introduced Southport Community Broadband Committee members Nancy Prisk, Adam Shepherd, Smith Climo, Geoff Chatterton and Maureen Kinsey, as well as Kendra Jo Grindle of the Island Institute and Mark Ouellette of Axiom Technologies, a Machias-based company specializing in delivering critical broadband services to rural communities, especially in Maine.
Gamage said a May 7 referendum will seek approval for a $2.4 million bond to install a fiber optic network on the island. He said the bond would be repaid over 20 years.
Speaking on behalf of the committee, Climo explained this was a “worst-case scenario” and much public funding — both federal and state — is available and would be pursued after a “Yes” vote. That funding would considerably reduce the burden to taxpayers; furthermore, he said, “the 20-year timeline will come down as soon as we start getting revenues from subscribers.”
When asked why the committee and select board recommended owning the fiber optic cables, Climo said, “If you’re not connected via fiber optics in the next couple of years, you’re going to be left behind. Neither Consolidated Communications nor Spectrum is interested in updating or connecting the unserved parts of the island.”
When asked why, given the probability of grants, the town was asking voters to approve the maximum bond, Grindle said that when other communities have had only part of the project funded by bond money, they have found it harder to raise other funds and have thus fallen short.
Ouellette said Axiom had presented the committee with a planning document a couple of months ago. “I expect the system will cost Southport well under $2 million. We’ve become very experienced in tracking grants and other funding. Also, working with other communities we’re seeing that almost all the bond payment ends up being paid for by subscription revenues.”
When pressed on how much a subscription would cost, all parties were reluctant to give a firm dollar amount but stressed it would be comparable to, if not lower than, fees charged by Spectrum and Consolidated Communications.
Also, Grindle said, “By pursuing this route, Southport will have a community voice on cost, service, and contract choice of provider.” She added, “Fiber optic networks are cheaper to maintain than copper wire or satellite technologies. The technology will outlive the cost and debt of installation. These systems are already being proven in several Maine communities.”
Expressing doubt in the community-owned model, Rick Jameson of Spruce Drive, who said he “works for a company that puts in 20% of the fiber in the US,” suggested Southport should not get into ownership unless it could be “funded entirely by grant money. The big companies are laying fiber optic all the time,” he said. “In five years it’ll be here…Spectrum will bring it here.”
Prisk responded, “One year ago Spectrum and Consolidated said they had no plan to bring fiber optics to Southport.”
Tom Myette of Cameron’s Point Road also said he did not think Southport should own the hardware. “The technology is changing too fast,” he said. However, Myette was sympathetic to those households with poor or no internet service. He asked, “Why don’t we ask the providers what the cost would be to hook up everyone who currently needs it? We should first take care of the 7% or 8% of households who are without, not changing the whole island.”
Prisk responded, “Seven providers have been approached for that and have all walked away. They will only do it in their timeline, which is years out. In five years no existing provider has been willing to come up with a solution.”
Ham Meserve of Town Landing Road asked who would govern the service. Gamage said it would come under the selectmen’s purview.
The meeting wrapped up after two hours of spirited back-and-forth discussion.
The committee will host informational meetings and Zoom Q&A sessions in the weeks ahead.