It would cost approximately $18.7 million to connect all of the homes and businesses in Rockland, Rockport and Owls Head to high-speed Internet, according to a new study released by Portland-based consultant Tilson Technology Management. The report was commissioned by the three towns earlier this year to study the feasibility of connecting to the 1,100-mile, dark fiber-optic highway that in the midcoast runs right along Route 1. 

The so-called 3 Ring Binder Project, which was completed in 2012 with $25 million in federal funding and  $7 million in matching funds from Maine Fiber Company, is capable of providing up to 1,000 times faster speeds than the average 10-megabit DSL Internet connection. 

However, aside from the mile-long expansion into Rockport funded by a combination of municipal and private funds, few carriers are providing the necessary “off-ramps” to enable people and businesses to connect to the fiber-optic network. Since the launch of its municipal network, Rockport has become a national example of how public and private entities can work together to expand rural, high-speed broadband. 

Rockport provided the inspiration for the other two towns to join it to study the feasibility of adopting a more ambitious program, said Rockland Community and Economic Development Director Audra Caler-Bell. 

“This study was how to make it accessible to others,” said Caler-Bell. “This is basically looking at all of the options and what would be affordable.”

According to the Internet carrier GWI, it can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000 per mile to run a cable from the fiber line, which is usually out of the price range for most homes and businesses. However, proponents of  public investment in high-speed broadband say the service can be a substantial benefit to a range of business sectors including manufacturing, insurance, hospitality, and banking, as well as high-bandwidth users utilizing Cloud back-up services, digital imaging, and telemedicine. 

Supporters also argue that high-speed Internet can attract telecommuters who work from home. 

The Tilson study estimated that the economic impact of doubling Internet speeds in Rockland could result in an increased economic output of nearly $10 million, including $3.3 million in increased wages and  $237,600 in property tax revenue by 2020. 

A majority of residents are supportive of making a municipal investment in improving broadband and are willing to switch providers for a faster speed, according to a random survey of property owners in the three communities conducted by Tilson. 

The report noted that there are currently five Internet service providers in the area, excluding wireless carriers, with Time Warner Cable holding 70 percent of the market share. Downtown Rockland has the most competition and Owls Head has the largest coverage gap. Currently a handful of homes and businesses as well as all of the public schools and libraries in the three towns have access to the fiber-optic network. 

Surveyed residents reported dissatisfaction with Internet service quality. However, only 14 percent said they were willing to pay more than $75 per month for the much faster service. The report noted that the private sector currently has no incentive to expand high-speed broadband opportunities.

“If one or more communities wishes to pursue a fiber-to-the-home solution, it will create a regionally unique and nationally distinct model,” the report stated. “However, the three towns are considered served by national standards and are therefore ineligible for most subsidies. Local public or private capital will be required to realize a network solution.”

The cost of the project would be nearly $8 million for Rockport, $7.7 million for Rockland and $3 million for Owls Head. The Rockland Economic Development Advisory Committee (REDAC) has recommended exploring the possibility of including a fee for high-speed service in property tax bills along with additional fees for usage. Under such a plan, residents would still be able to choose whether or not to take advantage of the service. The Tilson report stated that the towns would not likely derive any revenue from the potential investment. 

Elected officials from the three towns will discuss the study in detail on October 6, at 6 p.m. at the Rockport Opera House.