Bringing Broadband to Every Community in Maine:  How Providers, Municipalities, and Other Organizations Can Work Together to Get the Job Done

 

OTELCO Merchandise

Last week OTELCO’s marketing team made their way to Newry, ME, for the 73rd annual New England Management Institute. The institute is a four day conference for Maine town managers, put on by the Maine Town City and County and Managers Association. While there, Tracy Scheckel, OTELCO’s marketing manager, and Heather Johnson, the director of the ConnectME Authority, gave a presentation on broadband expansion in Maine. Their address covered everything municipality leaders need to know about bringing reliable Internet to their communities, including:

  • Return on Investment
  • Building a Network
  • State Resources
  • Recent Success Stories

All the information shared was relevant and important to anyone with the desire to bring better broadband to their community. If you weren’t there to see the presentation, here’s a recap of  the presentation because community broadband expansion is something we should all know more about.

Return on Investment

Return on Investment, or ROI, is a big part of any venture. The ROI for an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and a Municipality is going to look very different. For the ISP, it is going to be about a fiscal return. There is a basic example of an ROI for a Fiber Build that OTELCO uses quite often. It is based on the following assumptions:

  • $20,000 per mile for fiber infrastructure cost
  • $600 per home to deliver service from the street
  • 13 homes per mile
  • Average monthly cost for the provider to actually deliver the service after installation is $32 per month
  • The subscriber pays $65 per month for the service
  • Net revenue per home is $33

From these estimates, we conclude that a one-mile build with thirteen homes would bring the total cost of the project to $20,000 with an added cost of $600 for each home that connects to the service. If every home purchases Fiber to the Premise from this build, the total cost per home would be $2,140. A 100% take rate (the number of homes that actually subscribe to the service) is unlikely so let’s say that seven homes actually subscribe, bringing the total cost per home to $2,460. When you divide the cost per home by the net revenue per home ($33), you can see that it will take roughly nine years for the ISP to see break even. That is what the ROI on a broadband build looks like for an ISP.

For a municipality, the ROI is about the growth and prosperity of the community. A municipality is looking at things like:

  • Attracting New Businesses
  • Drawing in New Citizens
  • Economic Growth
  • Educational Opportunities
  • Quality of Life and Place
  • Streamlining the Municipal Process
  • Improving the lives of the elderly through telemedicine and added independence

Too often, towns get looked over by ISPs because they are not seen as profitable. Those municipalities are left with slow, unreliable Internet, which hinders the whole community. That is why municipalities may take charge of their own broadband.  

A man works to fill a trench with dirt.

Building a Network

Municipalities have two options when it comes to building their own broadband network. They can:

  • Go it alone: Essentially, the municipality becomes the owner of the network and general contractor for the design and construction of the network.
  • Enter a Private-Public PartnershipThe municipality works with an ISP to build, and maintain their network.

Going it alone can be a real challenge for most municipalities. In addition to the hard costs in your budget, you’ll need to add the cost of an engineering firm for design, and a company to actually build the infrastructure. Once it is built, you will have to pay the price of maintaining and the network, including upkeep, customer services, marketing and more. Unless your municipality already runs its own utility company, building, operating, and administering a broadband network is a tall order.

Public-Private Partnerships are beneficial because ISPs already have the resources and expertise that go into building and running network. Municipalities can choose between a local provider or a non-local provider. A local-provider has the potential to save a municipality money because they may already own resources, such as utility poles or central office space, in your area. Non-local providers are still a fine option, they just won’t have the local resources, which can mean more spending for the community. Whichever you go with, a Public Private Partnership can help realize your community’s broadband vision..

ConnectME

The ConnectME Authority is a government agency whose mission is to “facilitate the universal availability of broadband to all Maine households and businesses and help them understand the valuable role it can play in enriching their lives and helping their communities thrive.” They do this by awarding grant money to towns and providers aiming to expand broadband in rural Maine. They are administered by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development and funded through a .25% assessment on landlines.

ConnectME is an important resource for any municipality looking to develop a broadband network. Already this year they have:

ConnectME obviously does much more than just grant money to help with broadband builds. They also provide multiple resources for towns looking to take on these projects.

Success Stories

There are many successful broadband stories across the country. During their presentation, Heather and Tracy touched on four communities that either have or are in the process of strengthening their connections.

  • Leverette, MA: Leverett is a town in western Massachusetts with approximately 811 residents and business address over 43 miles of road. With a $40,000 planning grant from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, Leverett went to work building a broadband network for their community. After the citizens overwhelmingly approved a 20 year general obligation bond for construction, the Leverett Municipal Light Plant (LMLP) was formed to own the network.  In Massachusetts, many municipalities own and operate individual electric plants. Recently the state adjusted legislation to allow for the operation of broadband networks by MLPs.  During construction, the LMLP worked to educate and build interest in the Fiber to the Premise project. By the time the project was complete in 2014, 65% of residents had pre-subscribed for service, today the take-rate is in excess of 86%.  Leverett hired separately a Network Operator and an ISP.  After a couple of years, the town decided to leave the original ISP and look for a new one. OTELCO was awarded the contract and has been serving the community since 2017.
  • Baileyville and Calais, Maine: Downeast Broadband Utility is a nonprofit that is bringing high-speed broadband internet to rural Maine communities, such as Baileyville and Calais. Open-access dark fiber infrastructure allows Baileyville and Calais, ME to invest in a future that bridges the gap between rural communities, and technological and economic growth. Downeast and the communities of Baileyville and Calais have done a lot of upfront work to create excitement and interest in the network. Downeast spent time on the ground, talking to community members about their plans so that when it came time to vote on funding for the project, it was met with overwhelming support. Right now, they are at the pole attachment phase and it has been a struggle for them getting on the poles, as it can be for many of these projects. One thing municipal leaders in these communities have stressed to others in their position is flexibility. “Be really detailed with an action plan” advises one leader “but be ready to change it.”
  • Cranberry Isles, ME: The Cranberry Isles are five Island towns nestled into the coast of Maine. When the Isles only ISP decided to leave the rural Islands were faced with two choices, have no Internet at all, or build their own Network. The result of that choice was the community banding together to stay connected. They voted to accept a $1.3 million bond, which is where things got interesting for the Isles. After they had voted on the bond, the USDA came in to let them know they had already been awarded $1.3 million in grant funds. It is safe to say that the grant made their whole project that much more affordable.The Isles partnered with Axiom Technologies and started building their broadband network. The thing about being a group of islands off of Maine is you are unique, and therefore you have a unique set of needs. To meet those unique set of needs Axiom and the Cranberry community had to come up with some creative build out solutions. In many places, to avoid issues with existing utility poles and possible pole fees, they put up special 20ft poles that are made of Kevlar. On one Island, that has no electricity and therefor no utility poles, they are running fiber along the ground. The Cranberry Isles is a great example of a community who wouldn’t let anything stand in their way.
  • Islesboro, ME: Islesboro is almost 100% connected at this point, and now stands as one of Maine’s first successful rural broadband projects. Islesboro is another Island off of the Maine coast, and just like the Cranberry Isles, it faces a unique set of challenges. Recently, ferry prices to and from Islesboro went up, and now more than ever residences are looking to capitalize on the benefits of broadband to reduce their need to commute back and forth from the island. This strong broadband connection has opened a lot of doors for Islesboro residents. Whether it be telehealth, telecommuting, online classes, or simply making the island more attractive to the summer population, broadband is going to make life on Islesboro that much simpler.

Learn More

Broadband expansion is an important issue across the country. Whether you are a town manager in Alabama, or a farmer in Maine, broadband can make a difference in your life. If you want to learn more about Municipal Broadband, download OTELCO’s Broadband 101 primer. The more people that become involved in this discussion the faster we can connect the whole country to reliable broadband.

Broadband for Cranberry Isles & Beyond

 

Broadband internet is as essential for community resiliency as are dependable roads, electricity and public safety. These services provide foundation for people to live, work and enjoy a basic quality of life. Rural places in Maine are finding creative solutions to a fundamental challenge: lack of density in population reduces the financial feasibility for the private sector to create necessary broadband infrastructure. This challenge is nowhere clearer than on Maine’s inhabited islands. Not just remote or rural, islands are, by definition, cut off from neighboring communities. This adds cost and complexity to any connections.

GrowSmart Maine was pleased to participate in the ribbon cutting for the municipally-owned broadband network and follow-up roundtable discussion hosted by the Island Institute in Islesford, Little Cranberry Island, on Tuesday July 10. These events highlighted the collaboration and local commitment and was coordinated with a visit to Maine by Anne Hazlett, Assistant to the Secretary of USDA for Rural Development. The Cranberry Isles broadband initiative was funded in large part by a Community Connect grant from USDA:RD as this agency recognizes e-connectivity as a critical strategy for economic development, innovation & technology, workforce development and quality of life. The Island Institute coordinates this initiative and supports island and coastal communities as they choose to take charge of their future through community-driven process.

Learn more about broadband internet for islands through the work of the Island Institute here

A local broadband committee worked extensively to articulate the value of access to highspeed internet within the communities and with funders and other supporters. These include access to work opportunities, improved telehealth and educational opportunities, as well as access to resources and markets for island-based businesses. And on Tuesday islanders were joined by other partners in celebrating successful deployment of fiber on all three of the Cranberry Isles.

Following the ribbon-cutting there was a roundtable in which other regional approaches to addressing the broadband divide were presented. Franklin and Cumberland counties are deep in planning for regional solutions (yes, there are rural towns in Cumberland county!). Maine West updated the audience on their broadband planning process in which coordinated plans have been outlined for 25 towns. Action plans range from beginning steps to larger efforts and include both youth engagement and increasing uptake when broadband is available. Islesboro, another year-round Maine island community, has successfully deployed a town-funded municipal system offering universal service with a low-income subsidy resulting in a 90% uptake. With this variety of strategies, the best models allow the flexibility necessary for ease of transfer to other towns. Each has town and system design has unique assets and challenges, but any community focused on managing their future can incorporate high-speed reliable internet in their plans.

GrowSmart Maine serves on the steering committee for the Maine Broadband Coalition with CEI and Maine’s Small Business Advocate and in that role will continue to advocate for and support community-driven efforts. As with most significant issues in rural areas, regional solutions will be the most effective. We will be highlighting several Maine-based “localism” efforts focused on the rural economy at our October 11th Summit in Bangor. There is still time to submit a proposal if you are part of such an effort and want to share outcomes and lessons learned with peers from across the state.

When It Comes to Broadband, Millennials Vote with Their Feet

By Dr. Roberto Gallardo, Robert Bell and Dr. Norman Jacknis. This article is republished from the Daily Yonder.

Cities are the future and the countryside is doomed, as far as population growth, jobs, culture and lifestyle are concerned. Right?

Certainly, that is the mainstream view expressed by two analysts from Brookings in article titled “In 2017, Rural Places Won a Little more, But Will It Last?” Their conclusion? Not likely. “Many of the industries that added jobs in rural communities in 2017 – such as logging, mining, oil and gas, and construction – remain cyclical given economic and commodity trends…The types of physical and rote jobs prevalent in rural America remain disproportionately vulnerable to automation and globalization.”

What is interesting about their list is its complete dismissal of a digital economy in the countryside.

Yet as the digital age continues to unfold, conversations around the impacts it has and will have on the socioeconomic landscape intensify. On one hand, one camp argues that the digital age is as prone to clustering as the industrial age was. Digital will deepen and accelerate the competitive advantage that cities have always had in the economy. On the other hand, other pundits and researchers argue that the digital age will result in a “decentralization” and a more leveling playing field between urban and rural. Digital technologies are insensitive to location and distance and potentially offer workers a much greater range of opportunities than ever before.

The real question is whether such decline is inevitable or if the digital economy has characteristics that are already starting to write a different story. We have recently completed research that suggests it is.

Millennial Trends

While metro areas still capture the majority of new jobs and population gains, there is some anecdotal evidence pointing in a different direction. Consider a CBS article that notes how, due to high housing costs, horrible traffic, and terrible work-life balances, Bend Oregon is seeing an influx of teleworkers from Silicon Valley. The New York Times has reported on the sudden influx of escapees from the Valley that is transforming Reno, Nevada – for good or ill, it is not yet clear.

Likewise, a Fortune article argued that “millennials are about to leave cities in droves” and the Telegraph mentioned “there is a great exodus going on from cities” in addition to Time magazine reporting that the millennial population of certain U.S. cities has peaked.

Why millennials? Well, dubbed the first digital native generation, their migration patterns could indicate the beginning of a digital age-related decentralization.

An Age-Based Look at Population Patterns

In search of insight, we looked at population change among the three generations that make up the entire country’s workforce: Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers.

First, we defined each generation. Table 1 shows the age ranges of each generation according to the Pew Research Center, both in 2010 and 2016, as well as the age categories used to measure each generation. While not an exact match, categories are consistent across years and geographies.

millenials-graphic-1-1.png

In addition to looking at generations, we used the Office of Management core-based typology to control by county type (metro, small city, and rural) as well as their digital divide index (DDI) score.

The DDI developed by the Purdue Center for Regional Development, ranges from zero to one hundred where a higher score indicates a higher digital divide and includes two components: broadband infrastructure/adoption and socioeconomic characteristics known to impact technology adoption.

Looking at overall trends, it does look like the digital age is not having a decentralization effect. To the contrary. According to EMSI data, the U.S. added 19.4 million jobs between 2010 and 2016. Of these, 94.6 percent took place in metropolitan counties compared to only 1.6 percent in rural counties.

As far as population, virtually the entire growth in population of 14.4 million between 2010 and 2016 took place in metropolitan counties according to the Census Bureau. Figure 1 shows the total population change overall and by generation and county type. As expected, baby boomers are shrinking across all county types while millennials and Generation x are growing only in metro counties.

correctedfiguremillen.jpg

But there is a different story. When looking at only rural counties (what the OMB classification system calls “noncore”) divided into five equal groups or quintiles based on their digital divide (1 = lowest divide while 5 = highest divide), the figure at the very top of this article shows that rural counties experienced an increase in millennials where the digital divide was lowest. (The millennial population grew by 2.3 percent in rural counties where the digital divide was the lowest.) Important to note is that this same pattern occurs in metropolitan and small city counties as well.

Impact on the “Really Rural” County

“Urban” and “rural” can be tricky terms when it comes to demographics. The Census Bureau reports that 80% of the population lives in urban areas. Seventy-five percent of those “urban” areas, however, are actually small towns with populations of under 20,000. They are often geographically large, with a population density that falls off rapidly once you leave the center of town.

On the other hand, some rural counties are adjacent to metro areas and may benefit disproportionately from their location or even be considered metropolitan due to their commuting patterns. Because of this, we turned to another typology developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service that groups counties into nine types ranging from large metro areas to medium size counties adjacent to metro areas to small counties not adjacent to metro areas.

Figure 3 (below) shows counties considered completely rural or with an urban population of less than 2,500, not adjacent to a metro area. Among these counties, about 420 in total, those with the lowest digital divide experienced a 13.5 percent increase in millennials between 2010 and 2016. In other words, in the nation’s “most rural” counties, the millennial population increased significantly when those counties had better broadband access.

millenials-graphic-1-3.png

The New Connected Countryside: A Work in Progress

To conclude, if you just look at overall numbers, our population seems to be behaving just like they did in the industrial age – moving to cities where job and people are concentrated. Rural areas that lag in broadband connectivity and digital literacy will continue to suffer from these old trends.

However, the digital age is young. Its full effects are still to be felt. Remember it took several decades for electricity or the automobile to revolutionize society. Besides, areas outside metro areas lag in broadband connectivity and digital literacy, limiting their potential to leverage the technology to affect their quality of life, potentially reversing migration trends.

Whether or not decentralization will take place remains to be seen. What is clear though, is that although there are clearly other factors at play, any community attempting to retain or attract millennials need to address their digital divide, both in terms of broadband access and adoption/use.

In other words, our data analysis suggest that if a rural area has widely available and adopted broadband, it can start to successfully attract or retain millennials.

Dr. Roberto Gallardo is assistant director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and a senior fellow at the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum. Dr. Norman Jacknis is a senior fellow at the Intelligent Community Forum and full-time faculty at Columbia University.

Victoria Krisman is Interactive Media Specialist for the Intelligent Community Forum.

Pay attention to Calais and Baileyville’s bid for better broadband

Pat Wellenbach | AP   The end of an inter-duct tube is seen at Great Works Internet in Biddeford, April 6, 2010. The tubes provide protection for fiber optic cables.

It is impossible to compete today without fast internet, but slow speeds are still the norm in many parts of Maine. Just 12 percent of Maine households and businesses are considered to have access to effective broadband, according to the ConnectME Authority.

The state’s rural nature presents a chicken-or-the-egg scenario when it comes to making improvements: Rural areas need broadband to be economically competitive, but often there aren’t enough people willing to pay for high-speed internet to make an investment in upgrades worthwhile for a private company.

Calais and Baileyville in Washington County saw a need and did something about it. Last year, they came together to form the nonprofit Downeast Broadband Utility, and this year, they intend to be the first municipalities to take advantage of new rules that give them a right to attach fiber-optic cables to utility poles.

That detail is key. Fiber-optic cables are designed to transmit data. They can send it faster than copper wire networks originally built to transmit telephone signals and cable television. But before new rules went into effect in January, pole owners didn’t have to respond to municipalities that wanted to create their own broadband networks.

Now they do, and Calais and Baileyville are first in line to take advantage of the opportunity. Attaching cables to utility poles will be the biggest cost of the approximately $2.5 million project, which aims to connect fiber to 97 percent of area homes and businesses. Construction is expected to begin this year.

In addition to helping the project get started, having set rules will help clarify costs and project timetables. It should also provide a clearer path for more towns and cities that want to fund their own broadband networks. Other places should pay attention to what’s happening Down East.

There are a few things to watch. Perhaps the most important will be whether the company, or companies, offering faster service over the lines will price it affordably, which will be a factor in determining whether local residents and businesses purchase it. A faster network won’t mean much if people don’t use it.

It will also be helpful to know if the project ultimately has an economic impact, perhaps on household income, employment or business growth. Knowing these details will better inform other communities examining whether to pursue a similar route.

The Downeast Broadband Utility doesn’t anticipate the project will raise local tax rates, as leasing the network to internet service providers is expected to generate revenue to pay down the loan and interest.

Calais and Baileyville deserve kudos for pursuing a new approach to faster internet. It would have been easier to give in to demographic forces, but instead, there is energy behind trying something new. Other Maine communities can learn not just from their methods but their tenacity.

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2 rural towns pioneer new route to faster internet

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Scott Cornforth, a foreman with NextGen, installs a guy wire on a utility pole as part of the installation of the statewide middle-mile fiber-optic network called the Three Ring Binder, in 2012. A fiber-to-the-home network designed by Pioneer Broadband to serve Calais and Baileyville will connect to the Three Ring Binder, according to Don Flewelling, of Pioneer.
By Darren Fishell, BDN Staff

 The communities of Calais and Baileyville are putting their own money into getting faster internet speeds than most of the state. It will be a dramatic turnaround, allowing the average user to download a 45-minute high-definition television show in roughly one-and-a-half minutes.

They are following the lead of other Maine cities and towns, but one thing’s different in Calais and Baileyville, which last year came together to form the nonprofit Downeast Broadband Utility.

When the utility starts negotiating to put 87 miles of fiber-optic cable on area utility poles, they’ll have unprecedented leverage, thanks to new rules that give them a right to attach to those poles.

It’s a big deal for a small network. For Downeast Broadband, attaching their cables to utility poles is the biggest cost of the roughly $2.5 million project. The rules help make those costs and project timelines more predictable, and that stands to give rural parts of the state clearer paths to funding their own networks.

“Pole attachments, as wonky as they are, were a major regulatory hurdle for small [internet service providers] and communities to figure out and deal with,” said Peggy Schaffer, co-chair of the Maine Broadband Coalition. “It became an unpredictable, expensive process to attach to poles.”

Most of the poles in Maine are owned by electric utilities or Consolidated Communications, which acquired FairPoint Communications last year. The company owns most of the poles in Calais and Baileyville, and the others are owned by Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative.

In the case of Consolidated, which provides its own broadband and data services, attachment requests from other networks can amount to competition.

As Calais and Baileyville are the first to operate under the rules that give them a leg up in dealing with pole owners such as Consolidated, they have the attention of people who see a potential economic lifeline for fledgling communities where it’s harder for private internet providers to make a profit.

From 2010 to 2016, populations in both towns declined by roughly 5 percent, according to census estimates.

“We hope that having this infrastructure will make us more attractive to telecommuters, seasonal residents, businesses that are looking to expand or relocate,” said Julie Jordan, director of the Downeast Broadband Utility.

Fiber-optic cables are designed to transmit data and can send it faster than copper wire networks originally built to transmit telephone signals and cable television.

The project aims to make direct fiber connections to 97 percent of area homes and businesses, helping address repeated concerns from the county’s single largest employer, Woodland Pulp and St. Croix Tissue. Dan Sullivan, the mill’s information technology manager, has made regular pleas in Augusta for new state investment in high-speed internet connections.

Sullivan told lawmakers last year that faster internet speeds in the community were critical to the mill’s bottom line and, therefore, its more than 400 employees. But he criticized public investment in upgrades using “outdated technology,” pointing to a DSL line built near his home in Cooper using federal broadband funds.

“[The DSL] project is a good example of using public dollars to build networks that are slow, outdated and unable to handle present day internet needs, let alone future ones,” he wrote.

Jordan said the utility expects its network to serve customers for about 30 years, which was part of justifying the millions both towns will borrow to build it.

Once the project starts construction, it will take about two years to complete, but Jordan said the network could light up different sections in phases, providing service sooner for some customers. Jordan expects construction to begin this year.

A long time coming

Getting access to utility poles wasn’t impossible before for municipal broadband networks, but it was more difficult. In Islesboro, leaders of a four-year effort to build their own municipal fiber network said they were forced to accept whatever terms a pole owner offered.

Still seeing it worth the cost, they accepted and this month are firing up a $3.8 million fiber-optic network that’s delivering some of the top speeds in the country.

Roger Heinen, a member of the committee that led the Islesboro effort, said that kind of local push will be required to get broadband to some of the state’s most remote corners.

“This was always about a realization that the incumbent cable and phone companies can’t invest in a place like Islesboro,” Heinen said.

Consolidated, the state’s largest incumbent internet service provider, had sought to limit the reach of the new pole attachment rules, arguing unsuccessfully that regulators should step in only to resolve disputes, not to make rules for every application.

Regulators sided with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and groups such as the Islesboro broadband committee, which told regulators that access to funds and “an abundance of obstacles for attaching to poles” were among the top hurdles to expanding broadband “to all corners of Maine.”

The rules were a long time coming, Heinen said.

Maine regulators create rules governing utility pole attachment, but most states defer to federal rules. Before the new rules took effect in January, Maine last changed its pole attachment rules in 1993, the same year that internet provider AOL began mailing CDs to homes.

The new rules, which bring Maine in line with much of the country, require pole owners to respond to requests from municipal utility districts who want to string up their own fiber, denying them only in specific circumstances, such as when there are safety concerns. Eventually, the rules will include specific guidelines about how pole owners should set rates.

Previously, pole owners only had to respond to municipalities seeking to put up new emergency communications lines or streetlights.

With the new broadband rules, municipalities can’t go it alone, however. They need private companies as partners to actually operate the network, or to “light” the fiber. The Downeast Broadband Utility eventually will solicit bids for a company to operate the network.

With the Downeast utility leading the way, Schaffer said the new rules are promising.

“The Downeast Utility District was the first one to test that process out. And it worked,” she said. “It was simple and quick.”

It still requires communities to make significant investments in areas too sparsely populated for private internet service providers to justify costly upgrades in their own networks.

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.

Logged off

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.

https://public.tableausoftware.com/views/Mainelibrarystats/librarycomputerdash?:showVizHome=no&:embed=true

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.

 

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

Maine communities are closing the digital divide to join the global economy

                 George Danby | BDN
By Briana Warner and Nick Battista, Special to the BDN •

It’s inspiring to see what one small community can do to change the trajectory of its future. The Cranberry Isles, a tiny year-round island community off the coast of Mount Desert Island, just finished the first phase of a fiber-to-the-home community broadband network.

Just a year ago, residents had internet that was sometimes too slow to send an email. Upload and download speeds on the Cranberries now exceed 100 mbps, meaning they are able to join the global economy with faster internet than most of the U.S.’s metropolitan areas. Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the ConnectME Authority were clearly impressed with the ambition of this project. The recently awarded $1.3 million in federal funding will help cover almost all of the construction costs.

Broadband is so important to the future of the community that residents even voted to issue a bond themselves if that was the only way to make sure the project was built. The mostly volunteer broadband committee worked tirelessly to hold community meetings, create informational fliers, and write hundreds of pages of grant applications. They partnered with Axiom Technologies to design and construct an economically viable network.

Through it all, the Island Institute has been proud to assist with the community process and support the community leaders doing the hard work. It is a true public-private partnership where everyone has skin in the game.

This sort of public-private partnership is one model for the other 36 communities working with the Island Institute to improve their broadband capabilities. Across all of these communities, local leaders are focusing on broadband because it can diversify career opportunities, help strengthen small businesses and give elders access to telehealth to help them stay in their communities longer. It also provides educational opportunities for students and adult learners.

As contradictory as it may sound, reliable high-speed internet can help communities maintain their traditional way of life.

Market forces alone will not provide broadband for Maine’s rural communities, as internet-service providers need to make sure their investments will pay off. Often that’s not possible in much of rural Maine where there are too few customers per mile of broadband infrastructure. Residents in these small communities are taking matters into their own hands to avoid falling behind the rest of the global economy.

Fortunately, Maine is starting to move in the right direction. The residents of Calais and Baileyville used authority granted through recent legislation to form a broadband utility district, and are taking advantage of new rules that make the actual process of attaching fiber-optic cables to utility easier.

Existing state and federal policies to subsidize rural internet access are failing communities like Baileyville, Calais, Penobscot, Millinocket, East Millinocket, Medway and Islesboro, forcing them to solve their broadband problems themselves. In some places, internet capabilities are so unreliable that businesses struggle to run credit card machines, yet this internet access is often considered good enough to prevent them from qualifying for numerous state or federal programs.

Most existing government programs are designed to make sure everyone has some level of connection — not provide world-class speeds and a connection to the global economy. Providing bad internet doesn’t work anymore, and we need to stop trying to solve the internet access challenges of the last decade.

Instead, we need to effectively leverage limited public funding by making long-term investments through public-private partnerships to improve the business case for providing broadband to rural Maine.

We should be inspired by the Cranberry Isles and the other Maine communities utilizing public-private partnerships to help ensure a bright future. Merely being connected isn’t good enough to increase economic stability and growth or attract and retain new families. Government funding should reflect this. Maine shouldn’t continue to resign itself to being one of the worst connected states in the country.

Closing the digital divide by connecting all of Maine with broadband infrastructure is one of the few economic development challenges facing Maine that we know how to, and can actually, solve. The next two to three years is a critical time for Maine to make significant investments in broadband infrastructure.

Let’s make sure we make the right investments and send a strong message that Maine is open for businesses — now and for the future.

Briana Warner is the economic development director at the Island Institute. Nick Battista is the policy officer at the Island Institute.

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