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.

Like lots of rural communities, Fort Fairfield struggles with lack of access to high speed broadband

Written by Tim Goff, Executive Director Fort Fairfield Chamber of Commerce

Like many communities in rural parts of Maine, the town of Fort Fairfield has struggled to get connected to reliable, high-speed Internet access beyond our urban center.  As it stands today, roughly 60% of the landmass of our town does not have access to broadband, which means about one-third of the town’s population cannot connect to Internet with 3Mb download and 1Mb upload speed – let alone the state’s new definition of high speed of 10Mb over 10Mb.

As a matter of fact, many rural communities are concerned that this recent change in the definition of unserved areas and the requirement for upload speeds of 10Mb has the potential to leave our small towns and cities even further behind as only 12% of the state currently has 10Mb over 10Mb service.  We wonder about competing against projects that will serve many more people than we can connect, and how to deliver this new standard to outlying areas.  While we believe this standard is a good benchmark, those who are receiving speeds of 1.5Mb or less, and may never see a 10Mb over 10Mb connection wonder if this change will leave us even further behind in a state where connectivity is already an issue.  Our last mile, in many cases, is truly the last mile before an international border.

Having recently conducted a door-to-door survey of every home and business on the north-side of the Aroostook River which runs through Fort Fairfield, I can attest to the difficulties faced by residents looking to work from home, do research, connect with friends and family, or even allow their children to do their homework from home.  Many folks spend much more than $50 a month for unreliable satellite or mobile Internet service, which is low-speed and often caps the amount of data folks have access to monthly.  Others have invested hundreds of dollars to install towers and other equipment in the hopes of receiving a wireless Internet service that often falls well below the standard definition of high-speed (one resident told me during the survey that they are thrilled when they receive .3Mb).  And those are the lucky ones!  Many other residents have no options whatsoever to receive Internet service without removing trees, building towers and going deep into debt.

Communities in rural parts of Maine, especially those located hundreds of miles from much larger cities, already face an uphill battle to improve their economic conditions.  Transportation costs are higher because travel times to markets are longer.  The weather conditions are harsher, costing more money in fuel and weatherization, keeping a beautiful area from being attractive to many tired of the cold, ice and snow.  It takes a special breed to make their home in these more far-flung locations, where winter is never far from mind or from reality.  Yet, we love where we live, and so do our children, but when they have to stay at a friend’s house or visit the library each night to do homework or connect via social media, we are telling them that this is not a place that is invested in them.

We have more than one hundred properties on the market, with dozens more either unlisted or abandoned because people cannot find work, or have taken opportunities elsewhere.  Many of these grand, old farmhouses lie empty, not because they do not make a suitable home, but because today’s young families demand Internet access, and in many cases require it for their jobs.  Many of the doctors employed by the local hospitals do not live in our town because they cannot get reliable, high speed Internet service – a necessity for them to fulfill the requirements of their duties.  At one stop while collecting data during my survey, a young mother told me she chose to purchase a property in town, despite loving a farmhouse several miles in the countryside.  The reason had nothing to do with commute times or cost, but the need for her to connect to her place of employment from home.  Ask any realtor in Aroostook County, and they will tell you similar stories of homes sitting vacant because there is not Internet access.

This reality has a tremendous negative impact on our ability to attract and retain young adults and families, who send their kids to our schools, shop in our stores and become a part of the fabric of our community.  Our population continues to shrink, with no real hope to level the playing field with other parts of the country, state and even the county where Internet access is faster, better and cheaper.  Without employees, employers are uninterested in investing in our community.  Without customers, our businesses on Main Street struggle to keep the doors open.

Will high-speed Internet access fix all this? No, but it is a piece of the puzzle.  Without grants to help subsidize this investment by private partners, towns like Fort Fairfield will never be able to cobble together enough funds to help incentivize the substantial amount of money it will take to bring reliable high-speed Internet service to our rural residents and businesses.  While I applaud the ConnectME Authority and the State of Maine for changing the definition of high-speed Internet to a more reasonable speed, it reopens the door for places that have already received investments to seek additional resources to improve their situation.  We worry that we will continue to get passed by as towns improve to 10Mb over 10Mb and we dream about 3Mb over 1Mb.  This is the reality of rural Maine.  We implore the ConnectME Authority to give priority to communities that truly are unserved and underserved.  We believe this investment will help companies make the true last mile connections that provide limited return on investment and otherwise will never occur.

We love where we live, many people who visit or who have moved away long to return to their County roots, dreaming of a job or opportunity that would allow them to return and make a living.  The Internet was supposed to be a great equalizer, promising a future where folks could work from home no matter where their home is located, to shop anywhere while still in their pajamas, and to be connected to anywhere in the world from anywhere in the world.

9 stats that prove the Internet is as important as any utility

The post is written by Rick Bates, a member of the coalition and the town manager of Rockport.

When it comes to broadband access, we cannot afford to stand by and do nothing in Maine — we need bold steps.

If you look at Internet speeds, Maine ranks 49th in the country, just ahead of Montana.  Further, the United States, the country where the internet was created, is not even a leader in internet speeds and, depending on the source you use, is not even near the top of the speed ladder.  We are somewhere between 17th and 30th place, falling behind countries like the Netherlands, Latvia and the Czech Republic.  So why does this matter?

The world is changing faster than many of us really can begin to understand. Like it or not, the need for speed and bandwidth is growing at an exponential rate.   Just look at these statistics:

  1. In 1984, there were 1,000 internet devices in the world.
  2. By 1992, that number had risen to one million.
  3. In 2008 that number had risen to 1 billion.
  4. And 6 years later in 2014, the number had risen to 10 billion!
  5. There are 5.9 billion searches on Google every day, 100 times more than 2000.
  6. The number of text messages sent every day is double the population of the planet.
  7. The amount of new technical information is doubling every two years
  8. 95% of all of the data in the world has been created in the last two years!
  9. In the time it took me to type this … all those numbers have all changed.

What does this all mean to you? The internet is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity of life today. It is as important as roads, electricity, water, and sewer.  The time has come for us to think of it that way.  Imagine for a minute what our roads would be like if we expected the trucking companies to build them.  We would have good roads to some places and to other places not so good.

In Rockport, our town office might as well close the doors and send everyone home, if we do not have internet service.  Most businesses cannot exist without the internet.  It has become a critical component of our educational system and as we get older and older, the need for telemedicine is increasing every day.  Even my mother in law (who would kill me if I said how old she is) is online every day, communicating with friends out of state and overseas, reading news from around the world, streaming her favorite TV shows and even monitoring the effects of her medications.  She is not a techno-geek, but she counts on the internet every day!

While Maine has huge assets in the quality of life department, it is like we are on an island.  Very few of us get here by accident.  Typically, those of us who are here are not driving around and happen upon Maine one day and say, “hey…this looks like a nice place, and I think I’ll live here.”  We get here, by making a very conscious choice about what is important to us and for many of us; the thing that is most important, is “place” and “quality of life.” In Maine, we have those things locked up.

But the thing that makes Maine a great place to live, also makes it a place, that may be difficult for you to work and do business…EXCEPT that the internet should allow Mainers to communicate and be competitive in the global marketplace from the comfort of their own home!  Well think again. Even in larger urban areas, the speed of the internet and the high cost of getting service is a major deterrent to business growth and economic development.

If anyone has heard the economic forecasts for Maine, it has been the same for years.  Maine will not grow in population and we will get older…that is if we do nothing.  I am doing my part to add to that older demographic.  Us old folks add “experience” to the state and will ultimately add to the need for better telemedicine; however, while it might be nice having us around, we are not the key to changing Maine’s economic future.

The key to that change is young families who can work and raise their children in this beautiful place we call home. Whether they move in (from away) or are young people born here that want to stay, they are our economic future. They will create businesses, raise their families, contribute to and be valuable members of the community, spend their money locally and be the economic engine we need to keep Maine vital and a great place for us old folks to live.

To borrow a quote from Senator King, “for the first time in our history we can work free of geography…people can work where they live rather than live where they work.”  The old model of people migrating to the factory, where the jobs are, is no longer applicable.  Under the new model, many young people are choosing to live where the quality of life is one that they want, and they find a way to make a living.  In today’s world, this is happening in cool, high quality places, which have high-speed affordable internet, a critical ingredient that is sorely lacking in Maine.

Today as we are struggling to maintain our next to last place position in the country, when it comes to internet speed it is important to recognize that we are losing ground fast.  Cities and towns all across the country recognize the importance of the internet to their citizens and are making substantial investments in fiber infrastructure.  Many State governments are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure that they remain competitive and are providing broadband to residents and businesses.  Most are not considering small incremental improvements; they are going big and are providing gigabit access to their residents and businesses.  Next Century Cities of which Rockport and South Portland are members is growing in Membership. There are more than 400 municipally owned networks around the country and that number is growing every month. There is a tidal wave of gigabit connectivity going on all around the country, but not in Maine.

The Maine Broadband Coalition is trying to change that, but we need your help. We need residents and business leaders in the State to support the efforts of the coalition, the legislature and the individual communities that are trying to get on that wave.  We need to all start paddling and paddling in the same direction now, so we can ride that wave into the future…otherwise we will be caught in the undertow that will sweep us way out to sea alone and left to gather bits of flotsam, we need to survive.