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.

Re-defining Broadband in Maine What’s your opinion?

By Tracy Scheckel OTELCO

Posted 

If you’re reading this post, you are an Internet consumer, or you may be an entrepreneur who depends on the internet to conduct business; whatever your broadband needs are, your opinion about Internet speed may help shape the future of broadband in Maine.

What Defines Broadband?

When cable companies began to provide Internet access to consumers, the service was faster than traditional DSL and dial-up, and the industry coined the term to mean high-speed Internet access. Today, broadband is defined by the speed of upstream and downstream data transmission.

Who Defines Broadband?

On a national level, the current FCC standard is 25/3 Mbps, and has been a moving target for years. To confuse things even further, the speed requirements for the Connect America Fund broadband (CAF) model is 10 / 1 Mbps.

The ConnectME Authority in Maine is a quasi-government entity that administers a grant program for broadband infrastructure and planning initiatives. A recent change in the rule under which the Authority operates allows the group to adjust the definition of broadband in order to determine which locations are unserved and thus eligible for grant funding. For some time, the threshold has been 1.5 Mbps/768 Kbps meaning that any location receiving faster speeds isn’t eligible for funding. Even by FCC standards, the ConnectME threshold is inadequate, so the Authority decided to look at a potential adjustment of its definition of adequate broadband.

A publicly noticed meeting of the Board along with various stakeholders was conducted on April 9.  Part of the impetus for the meeting was to help Authority staff clarify a definition in order to have a better footing with legislators in Washington as they work to parse out funds for broadband infrastructure.

Most of the Internet providers in Maine were represented and a lengthy discussion continued for the better part of 2 hours.  The group ultimately vetted three potential standards:  10/1, 25/3, and 10/10.  The governing rule states:

The Authority must base its criteria on the state of the market as well as the performance necessary to meet the current broadband needs of common applications and network services in use in the State.

The Telecommunication Association of Maine (TAM) indicated support for 10/1 service as did Consolidated Communications and Spectrum; the Island Institute supported a minimum of 10 Mbps upload speed, Maine Broadband Coalition Co-Chair Peggy Schaffer, OTELCO, and a citizen from Waldoboro suggested a 10/10 symmetrical bandwidth.

Authority member, Ralph Johnson is the Regional CIO at MaineHealth and made an economic development case for symmetrical bandwidth.  He questioned whether Maine is building broadband for consumers or economic development. He felt that consumers – taking things FROM the Internet — could do with asymmetrical speed, but that in order for economic development to benefit, being able to send things upstream is critical.

Dr. Susan Woods is another member of the Board who founded of HiTecHiTouch, LLC, to advance health technology innovation, telehealth and virtual care, and digital inclusion.  She noted that a minimum recommended connection for one person engaged in telemedicine with a healthcare provider is 15/5.

Once all discussion was complete, Authority Chair and University of Maine System CIO, Dick Thompson asked for a recommendation from the Board. Ralph Johnson moved, and had seconded, a 10/10 standard which failed with a 2 – 2 vote of the four Authority members present. Thompson then moved 10/1 and couldn’t get a second, and Johnson in an attempt at compromise, also failed to get a second on a 25/3 proposal.

No Decision

While there was compelling testimony from all sides, it simply wasn’t enough to bring the attending Authority members to a recommendation.  Heather Johnson, ConnectME Authority Director, is hoping for more input from providers, citizens, and any other stakeholders or interested parties. That input will be reviewed and discussed at the June 22 meeting of the ConnectME Authority.

Ultimately, should the Authority determine a new standard, by rule, there would be a 30 day period for additional public comment before the change could be enacted.

Important to Note

There is a distinct difference between the minimum standard for service and the build-to speeds set forth in the grant RFP. The threshold that the Board is trying to determine is the benchmark that designates who is considered unserved and therefore eligible for funding.

Because the Authority is empowered to carry out the state broadband policy, and one of the goals is to see that there is secure, reliable, competitive and sustainable forward-looking infrastructure that can meet future broadband needsit is expected that the build-to requirements will look to the future.  The current build-to standard is 10/10, it stands to reason that should the Authority set a new minimum standard, that the build-to standard will also increase to something more futureproof.  For now, the minimum standard is the first step.

What are your thoughts?

What do you think the absolute minimum service standard should be? Should the requirement require symmetrical speeds? Contact Heather.Johnson@maine.gov, 207-624-9838 or Brooke.Johnson@maine.gov, 207-624-9849 before the June 22 meeting to share your thoughts.

Community Broadband Sticker Shock? Try a Different Approach

By Trevor Jones, OTELO   www.otelo.com

Community Broadband Sticker Shock recently hit Cambridge City Hall.

Recently, I worked with a City Councilor in Cambridge, Massachusetts to try and help the Council overcome a severe case of community broadband sticker shock.  It seems that the town had hired a consultant who had submitted a $200 million estimate for a city-wide fiber to the home network without first understanding what the City’s appetite would be for such expenditure – or, indeed, if the network being proposed was really necessary to achieve the City’s main goals.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much of my career selling things, but I would never deliver a proposal without knowing if my client had the budget for it – especially if my proposal was overkill for my customer’s pain points.  Indeed, the consultant’s entire approach seems backward to me, as if they knew that the answer was a town-owned fiber network before they asked a single question.

Cambridge’s Pain Points

At least for the couple of people I spoke with in Cambridge, their main interests lay in two specific areas:

  1. Digital Equity – Their main concern was in ensuring that residents of the City’s low-income areas and housing projects had access to affordable High-Speed Internet. Comcast’s Internet Essentials was the only option for these customers, and consensus was that it wasn’t adequate to the needs of families.
  2. Competition – The City was also interested in having a competitive marketplace for Internet access. They felt this would keep prices down, give the customers choices, and improve the quality of service.

At the same time, the city had a lot of logistical questions about what it would mean to own and operate a utility, given that unlike many Massachusetts towns and cities, they didn’t currently have a municipal electric utility, or a real desire to start one.

Solutions to Specific Problems

Of course, a city-owned fiber to the home network would address both of the key pain points, but there are other solutions that can address the city’s primary concerns for less money and minimize the need for the city to take too large a role in operating the network.

  • MTU-NDU Networks – The city’s most immediate concern was in providing something faster than Comcast’s Internet Essentials product to low income households. To the extent that these low income families are in city-owned housing projects and/or other forms of apartment buildings, a Multi-Tenant building strategy could cover a significant part of this population for a relatively small cost.  In some cases, city-owned fiber is already in the building.  In these cases it should be quite cost effective to provide Internet to the building over this fiber, and distribute to tenants using existing wiring and Very high bit rate DSL (VDSL), which is capable of delivering speeds in excess of 100mbps over short distances.
  • Hybrid Networks – In many cases, fiber-fed wireless networks can cost effectively extend the reach of new or existing fiber networks. One example of this would be to work outward from the existing fiber-fed buildings in the previous example using point-to-point wireless technologies to connect other multi-tenant buildings to the hub site.  This is the model currently used by NetBlazr to provide competitive access in Boston and Newark.  Alternately, point-to-multipoint wireless transceivers can be pole mounted or mounted to buildings to serve multiple single family homes in a “fiber to the pole” deployment.
  • Dig Once – Cambridge didn’t want to operate a network, but did want to promote a competitive marketplace for broadband. One solution that could promote this goal over the long term while requiring minimal construction costs and management headaches would be for the city to bury conduit whenever the streets are open and operate an open access conduit system, similar to the system currently operated successfully in Lincoln, NE.  City owned conduit could be leased to ISP’s interested in providing competitive broadband services, greatly reducing construction costs for market entrants.
  • Local Improvement Districts – Another way of delivering competitive services over the middle to long term to residents who can afford to pay would be the creation of Local Improvement Districts, which residents could join by paying their portion of connection costs up-front or by a direct 20-year assessment on their property. The resulting network could be operated by the city as an open access dark fiber network, with the fibers leased to ISP’s that wish for service in these districts.  It reduces public exposure to risk by guaranteeing the recovery of construction costs and giving people a strong incentive to retain their existing service.  At the same time, because it is an opt-in solution it greatly reduced the threat of political opposition; those who don’t want the service don’t have to pay.  Ammon, ID is perhaps the best known example of this.

Avoid Community Broadband Sticker Shock in your Plan

These are just a few strategies for solving the specific problems your community faces in situations where you can’t afford, or win support for, a town or city wide broadband network.  A combination of strategies may in fact be the best solution for the mix of problems you have, so make sure you clearly understand your goals first, and find a partner who is willing to work with you to design a mix of solutions to meet your goals.  If your community is facing a broadband challenge – I’d love to talk with you about it.  Please contact me.

I’d like to thank Chris Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance for his help with my presentation to Cambridge and by extension, this blog post.

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