Less than 1% of Harpswell addresses have no options for broadband internet, according to a study by a town consultant.
This widespread availability of broadband means Harpswell is not likely to qualify for federal or state grants to improve on existing options, the consultant says.
Comcast serves 99.3% of the town, according to the report by Casco Bay Advisors LLC.
The few areas without access to Comcast service include Little Ponds Road, Old Dunning Road, Whistlers Way, part of Peabody Road, George J. Mitchell Field, and Pole Island, according to the report. The provider is meeting its obligation under state law to offer service to areas with at least 15 potential subscriber locations per mile.
“With only 36 or 39 locations that don’t have cable TV infrastructure, you really wouldn’t be eligible for a lot of grants,” Brian Lippold, founder and president of Casco Bay Advisors, told the Harpswell Select Board on March 2.
The town may still want to pursue upgrades to broadband infrastructure, either to encourage competition or to offer fiber-to-the-home service as an alternative to Comcast’s mix of coaxial and fiber technologies.
“Harpswell has sufficient density to support not only Comcast, but probably to support another provider, if someone wanted to come in and build over the top of Comcast and deploy a fiber network,” Lippold said.
The town contracted Casco Bay Advisors, of Embden, to conduct the study, paying the firm $13,725 to identify gaps in broadband service and options to fill those gaps. The firm submitted the only response to the town’s request for proposals.
Harpswell’s telephone provider, Consolidated Communications Inc., may already plan to build a fiber-to-the-home network in Harpswell within the next two to three years, the report says.
“Confirming this suspicion quickly will be important to defining next steps,” the report says. If Consolidated plans to build a network that would reach most areas, the town could partner with Consolidated to reach the remainder of locations “at a cost substantially lower than deploying its own network.”
A spokesperson confirmed that Consolidated “is in the planning stages for construction to bring its Fidium Fiberservice to the Harpswell-area.”
“We look forward to providing updates soon on the timeline for construction start dates and availability in the area,” spokesperson Kyle Thweatt said in an email response to questions from the Anchor.
It is not clear whether Consolidated would make the investment itself or seek to partner with the town.
“As we have across the state and the region, Consolidated continues to look for ways to extend its services to as many residents and businesses (as possible), which includes making investments to (build out) infrastructure on its own, as well as partnering with towns, the state, and other organizations,” Thweatt said. “Some ways we look to do this (are) through local, state and federal funding opportunities.”
According to a recent press release from Consolidated, it has expanded its fiber-to-the-home service to 147,000 Maine homes and small businesses since 2021.
Consolidated already has a fiber network in Harpswell to connect its infrastructure and serve large businesses, so it could expand this network to serve residential customers, according to the study.
The town also has the option to build its own fiber network, or partner with a private company to build a fiber network.
The report estimates the cost to build a townwide fiber-to-the-home network at $8.43 million to $10.56 million. The lower cost would apply to a partnership with Comcast or Consolidated, because they already have infrastructure on utility poles in Harpswell and could avoid the “make-ready costs” and delays that would affect other providers.
A town-owned network could work from an economic standpoint, according to Lippold, but there are other questions to consider.
“At 36 homes a mile, it would be viable,” Lippold said. “It would be sustainable. It’s more a matter of, is that something you really want to do?”
“The best bet right now is to revisit, what are your goals?” Lippold told town officials. “What’s your vision for the town of Harpswell?”
Lippold encouraged town officials to engage the services of his firm or another firm to provide advice as the town considers its options.
“You really need someone guiding you in that process and somebody engaging with those internet providers to help them understand how this might fit into their strategic goals or their strategic expansion plans,” he said.
When the town contracted Casco Bay Advisors in October 2022, the town staff and Energy and Technology Committee members who reviewed the firm’s proposal recommended that the town budget funds to continue working with the firm in 2024.
At annual town meeting on March 11, voters set aside $10,000 in federal funds for broadband consulting.
The following week, Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said the town plans to retain Lippold to serve as the town’s “direct link to those companies interested in improving broadband services in Harpswell.”