ELLSWORTH — Faster Internet service for parts of the city is a step closer to reality after a vote by the City Council Feb. 9.
While the coverage area for such service will be limited at first, city officials and Internet experts said it should pave the way for expanded offerings in the future.
Councilors voted unanimously to lease a small parcel of land at the site of the old sewer treatment plant on Water Street for use as the site of a building to house broadband Internet infrastructure.
The land will be leased to the Ellsworth Business Development Corp. (EBDC), which last year secured a $250,000 grant to expand the availability of high-speed Internet service in the city.
That money will pay for the Water Street building and a two-mile stretch of fiber optic cable from there to Commerce Park off of State Street, along with other related costs.
Micki Sumpter, Ellsworth’s economic development director, said work can begin on the project once warmer weather arrives and the snow is gone.
City councilors were asked, and unanimously agreed, to put an additional $28,445 toward the project. That money will come from the city’s economic development TIF (tax-increment financing) program and not from property tax dollars.
Officials said the project will help connect Ellsworth businesses to high-speed Internet resources present in the city now, but that require this infrastructure to be fully utilized.
“You have the superhighway already,” said Andy Hamilton, an attorney with Eaton Peabody who serves as legal counsel to EBDC. “But you need the off-ramp and the local roads to take you to the office buildings.”
Indeed, a report from Portland-based Tilson Technology Management said Ellsworth is located at “an information superhighway crossroads” and that it has a lot of fiber optic infrastructure — “more than most Maine communities.”
Fiber lines are different from traditional copper cables in that they transmit optical light rather than electrical signals. This allows data to be transferred much faster.
The grant money and city TIF funds will be used to build what is known as COBI — community owned broadband infrastructure. Officials said Ellsworth will not be getting into the business of providing Internet service, and will instead find companies that already do that to rent space in the Water Street building.
That would allow the Internet service providers (ISPs) to provide faster service along the line to Commerce Park, which would travel north on Water Street and then up State Street.
Turning the famous line from the movie “Field of Dreams” into a question, City Councilor Pam Perkins asked, “If we build it, will they come?”
Tilson’s Aaron Paul said five companies have already expressed interest in renting space in the yet-to-be-built facility. He said multiple ISPs can use the space and that it in fact “works better when they do.”
The broadband effort is connected with a business incubator project in which EBDC, the city and other partners hope to serve new start-up businesses in Ellsworth. That project has a focus on biotech and health science related businesses due to the local presence of existing businesses in those fields.
Mill Mall and Commerce Park, two target spots for the incubator, will be covered by this project. Other locations targeted for future expansion are Boggy Brook Road and the former Lowe’s building on Kingsland Crossing (now owned by The Jackson Laboratory).
Lili Pew, a real estate agent who heads the EBDC broadband committee, pointed out many people have home-based jobs or businesses. She said the number one question she hears from her clients looking at Ellsworth is, “Do I have access to high-speed broadband?”
Running fiber lines to every residence in Ellsworth would be cost-prohibitive — in the range of $8 million to $12 million, according to Tilson — but there are other ways to reach parts of the city that Pew said are “in the black hole of technology right now.”
Paul said service that is “five, 10, 20 times faster” than what customers have currently can be provided wirelessly using the same type of service cell phone users have. Hamilton said Ellsworth “is blessed by having good towers in place already.”
Councilor Gary Fortier asked if such service would require “an ugly tower on the waterfront” and was told it would not. He also asked if the broadband building could be made to look like the pump station at the site. While an exact match is not a guarantee, Fortier was told a brick exterior was an option.
Immediately before the vote, Fortier echoed comments from other city officials who said the city was taking a big and important step with this action.
“This is more important to have in the city than natural gas, right now,” he said, referring to higher-speed Internet. “This is a utility that is really going to help us get ahead.”