Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Maine Island Stranded Without Fiber - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 155
Many communities feel like they are an island without proper connectivity but Islesboro, Maine, is literally an island... without proper connectivity. This week, we talk with Page Clason, Manager of the Broadband Internet Working Group for the island that is moving toward a fiber solution to expand high quality Internet access.
We discuss the differences between a mainland community and island life, the dynamic between full time residents and people who live on the island part of the time, and what Islesboro is doing to ensure everyone has high quality Internet access. We also touch on the discussions around how to pay for the fiber. We recently wrote about the vote to move forward with an engineering study and contractor search.
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Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."
Page Clason: It became painfully clear: it's only happening if we fund it. And once we realized that, well, then it became, well, wait a minute, we're not just going to fund the business community out there to go make a profit. We're building something that is ours, that we absolutely rely on and need.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello. This is the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez.
Communities in Maine have been the municipal broadband network news pretty frequently this past year. Rockport, South Portland, Orono, and Old Town are just a few communities engaged in some form of connectivity improvement. The state is taking action this year, also. At one time, there were over 30 bills in the legislature aimed at improving broadband in Maine.
Islesboro is a small island community in Maine that recently voted to fund an engineering study. This community has its own special situation, with a small year-round population that multiplies when vacationers come to the island. Page Clason, owner of a technology support group and Manager of Islesboro's Broadband Working Group, visits with Chris in this podcast episode. Here are Chris and Page Clason, from Islesboro, Maine.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, I'm speaking with Page Clason, who is the owner of a technology support group and Manager of the Broadband Working Group in Islesboro, Maine. Welcome to the show.
Page Clason: Thanks, Chris. Happy to be here.
Chris: You and I met at the Maine Municipal Technology Conference just recently. And I'd just been through Rockport. I think I glimpsed your island, maybe just briefly, off the coast. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about Islesboro.
Page: Well, it's a little island about three miles off the coast of Maine. About halfway up the coast of Maine. And it's a long, narrow island. And, being an island, of course, it sticks up -- with the rocks that are sticking out of the water. So that makes it hard for the wireless signal. We have about 600 people year-round out here. And in the summer, it gets very busy. It can go up to a couple thousand people. So, it's a very busy community in the summer. A lot of activities, art shows -- and just many different activities going on non-stop. And then -- but then, in the winter, you know, come maybe September, October, things slow right back down, and things return back to the tradesmen who do all the painting and carpentry and the rest, and keep the town running and ready for another season.
Chris: And what's it like being an island community? I mean, how is it different from any mainland community?
Page: Well, there's certainly differences, good and bad. And it certainly takes a unique individual who wants to live on an island. And that is certainly, interestingly, one of the things that attracted me to your material when I first ran across it, when you were talking about the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Because, living on an island, that is certainly part of the story. You've got to be self-reliant. And we deal with that kind of a thing. And we deal with isolation. Where you can have storms that come, and the ferryboat won't run. So you either don't get to the mainland, or you'll be late to work. And, you know, the stores -- there's not many stores out here. So, they close at five o'clock, and you either have what you have or you don't have it. You can wait 'til tomorrow. So you plan ahead a lot out here, and you're very flexible. So it's certainly a different life than the mainland in that way. You can't just hop in your car and go somewhere. And some people have boats. They can go over to the mainland. But then you still have to get around over there. So, altogether, you know, it can make for isolation. But the flip side of all that is, the community is very strong. It's a very strong sense of community. We all help one another, and it definitely makes it a very warm place to live.
Chris: Well, I think one of the things that you have in strong similarity with many of the folks in Maine who are not on islands is that the state of your Internet access is quite poor. And you're -- they're looking for ways to improve it. Which is, you know, something that you and I have talked about in the past. But why don't you tell us how -- what is the connectivity like on the island right now?
Page: In general, most people are hooked up with DSL. We have some with an older fixed wireless system. And then, there are some with the mobile wireless. And then, there some poor souls are on the satellite, or even dial-up. And there are some spots where dial-up is the only thing you CAN get. So, it's definitely pretty spotty. But, like I say, the majority are with the DSL. That's -- I would say, in general, is our best out here, which -- You know, we have three distribution points on the island for that DSL. And it depends on how close you are to those, whether you get reasonable signal or you get very poor signal. So, I'd say, in general, most of our people are around 3 megabits down, 1 megabit up. But, you know, there's a few that can get, actually, 15 down. And pretty much anybody is 1 up. So it's -- you know, it's not very robust, and very spotty. You can have DSL -- or any one of those solutions -- in one house, but the neighbor can't get anything. We have plenty of problems where it's just not consistent, and the network will -- the speed will vary, or the connection itself will just drop off for a half hour or a few minutes at a time. The kind of thing where it's almost there but not quite. Very frustrating.
Chris: And, as a technical person, I'm sure you knew what was going on, and probably were frustrated before a lot of your neighbors. But, you know, what did you end up doing about it?
Page: Yeah. That's how it started for me. I moved back to this island, I don't know, a little over a decade ago. And I came here from Denver. And, at that point, I had DSL in the house out there. So when I came back, I had to go back to dial-up. That was pretty hard to cope with. And, you know, over the years, from there, the DSL and the other solutions started coming. And I was supporting the technology around town. So, absolutely, I saw pain everywhere I went. You know, people trying to get faster speed, or just any speed at all.
Chris: Well, I'll bet you really wanted to get back on the island, if you were willing to go back to dial-up.
Page: I grew up here in Maine. And then took off, went around the country. I was living out in LA for over a decade. Fifteen years, I guess. And then Denver for a while. And I just had enough of the city. I wanted to move back here. So, I came back to this island. And decided, you know, it's the time to get out of the rat race and settle into something that has got some real foundation to it, and -- was the way I looked at it. So, absolutely, it was a real sacrifice at that point in time. And, certainly, what we're looking at, to put the broadband out here, is to make it where people can be here without making a sacrifice. Because, as you know, this connectivity is no longer really an option. It's mandatory if you want to participate in many facets of the world. And that's certainly what we're looking at, is -- we want to have it where people can be here without sacrificing their connections to the world.
Chris: You had a really good session, I thought, at the Broadband Conference put on by the -- the Technology Conference put on by the Maine Municipal Association. And in it, I asked you the question of, you know, what is the dynamic, in terms of the impact of better Internet access on the island? 'Cause, presumably, you'd have more people visiting. And more economic activity, and that sort of thing. But you said it's actually kind of mixed result, because not everyone wants everyone to be coming out to the island for vacation. Can you just tell us what was happening there?
Page: It's a bigger picture of what's happening on the island altogether. You know, we're going through a transition here, I think. In the state, in the country, altogether, there's a lot of transitions going on. It is quite a challenge to maintain these communities. So, there's different undercurrents of what different people think the community should be, or -- And there's people who have their idea of, you know, where it's coming from, what it was. So, you know --
And when you get back to, you know, specific, what you're asking about, there's definitely some people who look at it like this is a year-round community, and some people look at it like this is a summer community. And, you know, it's obviously a year-round community that is heavily seasonal. And so, indeed, when we were looking at what kind of services we'd be able to offer, and who would want them, and what they'd be willing to pay -- and, you know, those types of issues -- some of it is, you know, there would be a large seasonal population that would want to have seasonal shutoffs. And that certainly could cause a challenge for us, and, you know, the whole modeling of the revenue. You know, we could really look at the economic impacts, and what would it be if more people would come here and stay longer for the summer. Or want to have, you know, more people buy more of these houses that are sitting empty. And, you know, indeed, there are some people who -- they like the peace and the quiet, they want it to stay peace and quiet, and they don't think we need to have a greater population, or the summer crowd staying longer. But, you know, there's plenty of other people who think, well, no, I mean, that's good and healthy. So, you know, some -- that makes the politics a little harder when you're trying to really decide how you're going to structure the whole revenue. And how you're going to announce it, and message it out. I mean, that adds complexity.
Chris: So, what is the solution that you're currently looking at? I know you had a big vote, and I think we'll have a little bit more of a discussion about that in a couple minutes. But why don't you tell us about the approach you're moving forward with?
Page: We did just have a vote. And that vote was for just over $200,000, to let us go through and do the engineering design for the system, and then to do all the contract negotiations, the operating plans, and select a contractor. And then we'll go back to the voters again for a final decision. And in this $200,000 effort, that we're going to do between now and the end of the year, that's going to really allow us to answer definitively how we're going to handle it. But what we did was, a lot of work from the initial studies -- the feasibility studies, and then the high-level engineering design -- and negotiations, trying to figure out the models that could work -- we did a lot of exploration of traditional multi-tiered plans, where you could have, you know -- well, for example, 3 megabits down, or 500 megabits down, or 1,000 megabits down, for different cost structures. And so, when we looked into that, we really found a way it could work. But then we had some of our residents asking about, well, why don't you just put everything in the tax -- under the property taxes, so that it's just a community service, like the roads or the school? And so we're exploring that was well. And there's actually, you know, some hybrids of those, or other solutions, that we're going to be exploring. But that's exactly what we're going to answering over the next two or three months on our side. The engineering group, they'll be working on all the nitty-gritty -- the details of, you know, the equipment and the fiber, and all the rest. But, you know, we're going to be looking more at the operating plans, and how it can work for people. So, that is still an exploration. But, certainly, the tax-funded approach has a lot of positive aspects to it. You know, on the other side, the subscription approach, that's something that people pretty well understand. So, we're going to answer those, and, like I say, look at other possibilities that come out of this research that we're going to be into.
Chris: One of the things that I think struck me when you were first speaking about it -- and when you and I talked a little bit -- was, you were very matter-of-fact about it, I thought, when discussing the idea of potentially funding it with tax revenues -- or tax dollars -- and saying, you know, we're going to look at this like it's infrastructure. And why make it so complicated? Let's just get it done. You know, is that something that you felt, that there's just this sort of pragmatic approach of, let's just find a way to do it?
Page: Oh, there's no question. I mean, certainly, through part of this feasibility study we did a while back, and the RFI process of trying to find vendors to work with us, it became painfully clear: it's only happening if we fund it. Meaning the community in some fashion comes up with the majority of the money. And once we realized that, well, then it became, well, wait a minute, we're not just going to fund the business community out there to go make a profit. We're building something that is ours, that we absolutely rely on and need. So, absolutely, there was a -- you know, a solidification. I certainly have viewed it that way, I think, from the beginning. But, in our working group, and definitely extended into the community, there was a solidification of, hey, you know, this is just as important as the roads, or as the school. And, absolutely, that's the way we're approaching it right now. Now, the question is, what's going to work with all the FCC regulations, and, you know, all the legal side of the structures of the entities involved, and so on. We've got a lot of questions to answer with that. But underneath it all, that is our view -- is, the Internet IS fundamental. It is infrastructure that any community's going to need. And it absolutely is something that communities are going to need if they feel their people are going to have equal opportunity in the world that's unfolding right now.
Chris: Sometimes, when communities think about paying for these sorts of things with taxes, it's perceived as being anti-business. But I get the sense that you have a lot of support from one of the businesses that you've been working with, GWI. You know, how are they reacting to your ideas?
Page: Well, GWI has been fantastic all the way along. We've been really fortunate with them. They do a good job, I think, serving the people of Maine, as opposed to just pursuing profits. And I think that's been excellent for us in this whole journey, where they've had to do a whole lot of exploration with us, to try and explore and find out what can we really do here. So, so far, I've been really happy with what they've helped us come up with. And I think the idea is -- you know, we're talking open access -- is what we're really exploring. So, you know, in the scenario we see unfolding, GWI would do the retail services. So, back up one step and say, what we're looking at is -- the community -- we're going to build and own the fiber network. And then, what we're going to do is partner with GWI. And then they will operate it and maintain it. And they've been very flexible at finding a way to do that. We're looking at the open access approach, where they would do the retailing of the services to our community members for Internet and phone services, and then they would also wholesale to any other providers that want to come to our residents. And, from my perspective, in these rural states like this, I think that's the only way you're going to see competition. That for me is a very important issue, where competition is what we need. But where we're struggling in a state that just doesn't have real competition. The only way you have it is one line coming to a house, or one real solid connection like this, with multiple providers on that connection. Because the only other way I understand the competition is, you know, three or four or five or six different connections to a house and that house can then choose which provider is the best one. And we're in a state where we're lucky to have one. So, where's the competition? So, I don't see it at all as anti-business. I see it as quite the opposite. And I think GWI has supported that as well.
Chris: And one of the things that I also found interesting about the island community is, this is a -- as you said, you have thousands of people that come out there in the summer. But the decisions are made by people who live there year-round, right?
Page: I mean, it's an age-old problem. You know, you get some people screaming about taxation without representation. But, you know, they make the choice not to live here. They make the choice to have their residence somewhere else. So, you know, in that sense, then, they can't vote for it. There's different ways it unfolds, where they do have a say. You know, for example, if we went down a subscription path, you know, they have a say whether or not they want to join into the subscription. So, in the beginning, right now, with where we're at, you're correct about that. We just made this vote, just last weekend -- last Saturday -- a very good vote -- and it was only island residents -- the registered voters -- who were able to vote on it, by state law. So, indeed, the rest of them, they're along for the ride.
Chris: Well, I think you can make a case that if you're someone who's only going to be paying for three months out of the year, that you're never actually going to pay for the capital cost of having it. And so, you know, I might think that for people who are not registered to vote there, it might only be fair to charge them a high connect fee, or something like that, because why should the island be subsidizing the capital costs for people who are only going to pay for service a part of the year?
Page: There's so many issues mixed in. But, you know, the one that makes it, I think, a little easier to converse is the roads, you know. So, it's very much like you're saying there. They're only there for part of the year, but those roads need to be there all year long, to maintain the community. And that's part of the story. They might not be here in the winter, but they're not going to have a community to come to if we can't maintain a year-round community. And, you know, before we got started on all this, part of what got us on this path was an economic development group that was looking at the pressures we were facing in maintaining a year-round community. And we felt that this was one of the serious ones. This and preschool. There are others, but this last election, we voted to support a preschool. And we also voted to put this in. And I think that's definitely part of it, is, we see this as a mandatory part of maintaining a community. So any of the people who are here part-time, if they want to believe they have a community to come to, they've got to help contribute to that.
Chris: Well, is there anything else that we should know about Islesboro, and your project moving forward?
Page: Well, I think we're going to find that all out pretty soon. Like I say, we just had the vote last Saturday. And so, just this morning, we had our first orientation meeting about what we're going to do next. And I think some very exciting things are going to start coming out in the next several months, as we really get the final answers about how this is going to work. Stay posted, and we'll see how it unfolds here. But I definitely feel very positive about it. Our community was very vocal in their support, at the vote. So I think it all bodes well. And I'm looking forward to seeing what the final solution is.
Chris: Well, terrific. And, just for people's reference, that was -- May 30th was the day of the vote. This conversation may not run for a few weeks, as we're getting our schedule set. So, thank you so much for coming on and telling us more about the network and your approach. And we'll be checking in with you over time, because we want to follow what happens.
Page: Well, I look forward to that. And I'll definitely be following up with you, as well, on trying to learn more of what you've got to help us, as we answer these questions in the next few months.
Chris: We want you to send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets . If you use Facebook, be sure to like our Community Broadband Networks page. You probably noticed the new music this week. We want to thank bkfm-b-side for their song, "Raise Your Hands," licensed through Creative Commons. Have a great day.