How Chebeague Island crossed the digital divide – keeping pace with Internet use calls for mixed solutions

By David Hill, Island Institute

Islanders provide for themselves and Chebeague Island is no exception. Over the years, we Chebeaguers have built our own library, recreation center, museum, daycare center and affordable housing; created an assisted living facility; and even provided our own ferry service.

Plus, we became our own town, seceding from Cumberland. So it should come as no surprise that when islanders couldn’t convince anybody to provide Internet service, we took up the challenge and did it ourselves.

We’re proud of our homegrown Internet service, but with the need for even more speed and investment, we need the cooperation of local, state and federal governments, as well as that of FairPoint, which will finally offer Internet on the island.

Beverly Johnson, the owner of an island plumbing company, had been authoring the island website, www.chebeague.org, since 1996, before the term “blog” had even been invented. I’m Beverly’s brother-in-law, and a business counselor and director of the Maine Small Business Development Center at CEI in Wiscasset. We both wanted speeds faster than dial-up and decided to do something about it.

We approached GWI, TimeWarner, Verizon and others, but with no success. With no alternative, we knew we would have to do it ourselves.

In 2006, we met Peter Petersen of Swanville, who had founded Mainely Wired to provide better Internet for himself and his neighbors—just like us! He agreed to set us up and train us in the art and science of wireless Internet installations. And so it happened that a plumber and a business counselor became network engineers.

We recruited a dozen “investors,” who formed Chebeague.net, LLC with the intent to provide for the community rather than for themselves. Bolstered by a $75,000 grant from the ConnectME Authority, plus grants from the Island Institute (publisher of The Working Waterfront) and Chebeague’s Recompense Foundation, a new ISP (Internet Service Provider) was born (www.chebeague.net).

In our “spare time,” Bev and I climbed roofs and crawled through cellars making the first hundred or so installations around the island. For the more technically minded, our five T1 lines provided about 7.5 mpbs to the island, delivered to homes wirelessly at 900 mHz, and households could hope for almost 756 kbps in upload/download speeds. We were in heaven.

We could email and surf the web. But that was before YouTube, Netflix and AppleTV became so popular. And it was before we had almost 200 customers sharing that 7.5 mbps.

We again approached the phone company, FairPoint by now, but again had no success. In 2012, Chebeague.net obtained another ConnectME $75,000 grant, bringing 20 mbps of bandwidth to the island via microwave from Portland to be shared by Chebeague’s homes and businesses through FairPoint’s leased telephone lines, fed by Chebeague.net’s central trunk fiber optic cable. We could offer 6.0 mbps down and 1.5 mbps up and again we were happy.

But remember YouTube, Netflix and AppleTV? We needed more bandwidth and in short order increased it to 30 mbps and then 35 mbps, the limit of our microwave radio equipment at the time. But even that was not enough to meet the growing demands of year-round and seasonal islanders.

So in 2015, we went back to our friends at Axiom Technologies and upgraded our microwave equipment to handle up to 225 mbps, currently delivering 100 mbps to the island, a long leap from the 7.5 mbps we started with.

We recently learned that FairPoint has received a grant from the Federal Communications Commission to run fiber optic cable under Casco Bay to serve the island school and library with 100 mbps service and “unserved locations and… locations with low speed Internet” with at least 3 mbps down and 1 mbps up.

We have had several communications with FairPoint Maine’s top executives, offering to share facilities (particularly the fiber optic cables) and work together to provide island residents with the best and fastest Internet service possible.

Over the past nine years we have invested almost $300,000, half from “investors,” half from taxpayers and built a loyal customer base of 250 homes/businesses, 87 percent of the year-round households and half of the seasonal residences.

We hope to work with FairPoint to utilize the new fiber under the bay to increase the bandwidth available and to upgrade the copper wiring on the island to make Internet available to the few residences that have not been able to enjoy DSL service.

In addition, we eagerly await the results of the Island Institute’s study of broadband infrastructure on the islands, currently being conducted by Tilson.

Although we are proud of our contribution to the island by crossing the digital divide and forever avoiding the pain of dial-up Internet service, there is still a long way to go.