But it gives those communities a clearer sense of how much and how long it will take to get a network up and running, clarifying questions about those painstaking pole-by-pole negotiations that make up their single largest startup expense.
“We don’t know [the cost] until we go and visit every pole with the pole owner,” Jordan, with the Downeast Broadband Utility, said.
Municipally funded networks are one solution to the problem that officials statewide agree needs some kind of outside support, according to the Maine Municipal Association.
“In recent years, it has become clear that without state and federal assistance, expanding infrastructure into Maine’s unserved and underserved regions will not become a near-term reality,” the association wrote in a 2018 paper on federal issues.
The association did not take a position on the new pole attachment regulations, but it wrote “there is now widespread recognition by local officials that internet access is unreliable, unaffordable, slow, or a combination thereof in their individual communities. This is an issue from the smallest plantations and islands to the largest cities, impacting schools, hospitals, farmers, and small businesses.”
Increasingly, though, localities are faced with taking matters into their own hands, according to Heinen, of Islesboro.
“It would be better to have a statewide vision and some leadership at the state level, but honestly towns are taking matters into their own hands, and, to the extent that they’re able, there are a lot of ways to do that,” he said.
In Washington County, the problem is particularly acute, based on the demand for internet connections at area libraries, which are tied in to a fiber-optic data network that’s much faster than most home connections.
In 2015, roughly one in three library visits in the county involved logging onto a library computer. In Cumberland and Sagadahoc counties, it was roughly one in eight, according to survey data from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences.
So, as other parts of the state, too, stare down the challenge of dwindling or aging populations, Calais and Baileyville hope their effort may serve as a case study for public investment in data networks.
Jordan, with the Downeast Broadband Utility, said the nonprofit utility is in discussions with an outside organization that wants to track the project’s impact.
The area’s economic need compelled the communities to collectively authorize borrowing roughly $2.5 million to fund construction of the network, designed by Pioneer Broadband, a Houlton-based company that last year installed a fiber network in that city.
Jordan said Downeast Broadband expects the project will not raise local tax rates, as it will generate revenue by leasing the network to internet service providers. Jordan said they expect that revenue will pay down the loan and interest.
A separate company will operate the network itself, taking a different approach than Islesboro, which decided to contract with one provider, GWI, to operate its fiber network. Downeast will contract with an operator that will allow other providers to join onto the network and offer service to customers with plans that, ideally, will compete on price.
It’s still uncertain what service will cost on the Calais and Baileyville network. It will depend on the companies offering service over the lines, though Jordan said a market survey found 97 percent of customers would be willing to pay $55 a month for speeds of 50 megabits per second for both downloads and uploads.
That’s five times faster than the base state standard set in 2015, which roughly 80 percent of Maine customers did not have at the time.