ISLESBORO, Maine — Island residents here took a step toward building their own high-speed broadband Internet system, after a vote at annual town meeting on Saturday showed overwhelming support to authorize more than $200,000 to kickstart the project.
The funds will be used to design, engineer and do upfront legal work for the fiber-optic system, according to Roger Heinen, an islander who served on a local committee to explore bringing broadband to the island.
Originally, islanders were slated to vote at town meeting to approve borrowing up to $3 million to pay for the entire project. But due to concerns about getting information about the plan out to all islanders, the meeting was delayed from May 9 to May 30, and the islanders did not vote Saturday on the entire estimated cost.
Heinen said that after the first phase is completed, the community will be able to get firm bids from contractors. Then, with a firm bid in hand, Islesboro residents can vote with more information on whether they want to borrow the money for the rest of the project.
Attendee Page Clason, who also serves on the working group, estimated that nearly 200 voters turned out for the meeting and that about 150 voted in favor of taking the first step for the project.
Heinen said that later this year, the islanders will reconvene for the second vote on the project, which he calls the “‘go’ or ‘no go’ vote.”
If residents agree and the plan moves forward, town officials said earlier this spring they believe it will be the first time in the state that such a small community — year round population 566 at the last census — builds its own broadband system and owns its own fiber-optic cables for the benefit of residents, rather than the benefit of bigger businesses or institutions.
“At the meeting on Saturday, I said to people that if at that time it’s too much money, or it’s too confusing, we vote ‘no’ and the project stops,” he said. “My hope is that we decide as a community to fix this problem. That we build a solution that lasts until I’m not walking this green earth. If the community is going to spend millions of dollars, we need a solution that will last generations.”
He and other islanders have said that the current Internet connection situation is untenable on Islesboro. There are parts of the island where there is no Internet access at all, and even where there is Internet service available, the speeds are too inconsistent and slow to meet current needs, he said. Supporter say they need better service for businesses to survive and to attract families to the island.
While no one spoke against the proposed broadband system at the annual town meeting, some islanders do feel that any extra tax burden is too much, Heinen said. Also, some islanders indicated that their current Internet access is adequate.
“That may be true today, but what we have available on the island would never supply their needs in the future,” he said. “I would say that broadband Internet these days is just like electricity or paving the roads years ago. It’s an essential quality of life. For people living on an island, it’s a way of lessening the digital divide that separates us from the mainland.”
Heinen said he was pleased that the islanders are following through with the process to determine whether they want to build their own broadband system.
“I’m pleased that the community stepped up and said, ‘We have a problem, and we should solve it by ourselves and in our own way,’” he said. “I’m very pleased about that.”