The downtown area in Searsport. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

SEARSPORT, Maine — Searsport officials are working toward creating and running a town-owned, high-speed, fiber-optic utility that would provide internet access to every home in the community.

The coronavirus pandemic has served as an impetus to the drive to provide broadband access, according to George Kerper, the chair of the town’s broadband committee. When students had to attend school remotely and many residents were told to work from home, it highlighted the town’s sometimes-spotty, slow or, in some places, non-existent internet service.

And in a time when having good internet access seems as important as other utilities, the status quo just wasn’t enough anymore.

“The COVID thing was a form of telling us, ‘Hey folks, you’d better do something,’” he said.

So last summer, the town formed its broadband committee to look at what other communities have done and brainstorm what Searsport could do.

Committee members were especially interested in Islesboro. At their 2016 annual town meeting, residents of the island community overwhelmingly approved a $3.8 million bond to fund construction of fiber infrastructure that could bring 1-gigabit internet access to every home and business on Islesboro and three neighboring islands. 

By 2018, construction was finished and more than 600 subscribers had signed on to Islesboro Municipal Broadband, each paying a $360 yearly subscriber fee. The service has become part of the fabric of the island, according to Islesboro officials, and is a far cry from the very slow or very expensive solutions that islanders previously had used to access the internet. One family, for example, used to pay $450 each month for a Verizon jetpack.

All of that sounded great to Searsport residents on the committee.

“It’s all part of economic development,” Kerper said. “We wanted to do a reasonable cost and take care of all the residences and businesses in Searsport.”

Installing a town-wide fiber optic system is ambitious but possible, he said. According to an informational booklet put out by the town, the initial cost estimate is between $2.5 million and $3 million. The broadband committee is seeking state grants to help defray the cost of the system, which the town will own. Searsport will contract with Axiom Technologies of Machias to provide service for a number of years.

Subscribers will be able to sign on to plans that will start in the $60- to $70-per-month range, and in return they will get high-speed internet that is roughly 10 times faster than a 100 Mbps cable connection.

Earlier this month, the Searsport Board of Selectmen voted to move forward with the plan to bring fiber-optic lines to the community. The next step will be to hold a special town meeting for residents to vote on a bond to pay for it, said Searsport Town Manager James Gillway. That meeting has not yet been scheduled.

“There’s a saying, ‘it’s future-proof,’” Gillway said. “It’s so far ahead of what copper wire does. It’ll give us better connectivity, and we would run it, own it, like any other utility. That way, we can control the cost. We can be super competitive.”

In the meantime, the town has put up a number of free WiFi hotspots to increase internet access for residents, business owners and tourists alike.

“It’s an expense, but good to get kids and parents the ability to get online,” Gillway said.

And Kerper and others are working to get the word out to the community about what the shift toward the broadband utility could mean for them. It’s meant a little legwork, but he doesn’t mind.

“If you go to the transfer station on a Sunday, that’s the best thing,” he said. “We’re trying to meet people where they are, and tell them what we plan to do.”