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Resiliency in a Decade-Long Fight to Get Better Broadband - Episode 453 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the podcast, Christopher talks with Belle Ryder, Orono, Maine Assistant Manager and President of the nonprofit OTO Fiber Corporation. The towns of Orono and nearby Old Town began their search for better broadband more than 10 years ago, and have overcome an array of challenges in bringing a pilot project to justify future-proof connectivity to the surrounding area.
Belle shares the origins of local efforts, and how the two communities kept finding themselves stuck with almost every solution too far out of reach. They were too small to entice private ISPs to commit to upgrading local infrastructure or invest in new construction that would bring fast connectivity to the region, but too small to finance a citywide network themselves. In looking for funding help, they found that existing options were considered too fast to qualify them for many opportunities to improve the technology in the ground. But residents were acutely aware that their broadband options were too slow to do more than the bare minimum to get online.
Christopher and Belle talk about the process of issuing multiple RFPs, working through a challenge by local cable providers, and how allies and local officials worked together to come up with a plan for financial stability and success. OTO Fiber's story is a testament to local resilience and resourcefulness in the face of obstacles and the value of never giving up.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Belle Ryder: Well, it's like birthing an elephant, painful, it takes a long time to first grow the elephant and then get it out there, but once you are through and on the other side, I think we'll really have something that makes the community stand out.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to Episode 453 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today, Christopher talks with Belle Ryder, Orono, Maine Assistant Manager, and President of the nonprofit OTO Fiber Corporation. The towns of Orono and nearby Old Town began their search for better broadband more than 10 years ago, and have overcome an array of challenges in bringing a pilot project to justify future proof connectivity to the surrounding area.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Belle shares the origins of local efforts in the two communities plagued by finding themselves stuck just over the wrong side of just about every line. They were too small to entice private ISPs to commit to upgrading local infrastructure, or investing in new construction that would bring fast connectivity to the region, but too small to finance a city wide network themselves. In looking for funding help, they found that existing options were considered too fast to qualify them for many funding opportunities to improve the technology in the ground. But residents were acutely aware that their broadband options were too slow to do more than the bare minimum to get online.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Christopher and Belle go through the process of issuing multiple RFPs, working through a challenge by local cable providers, which saw one grant win taken away, and OTO Fibers eventual success in showing that not only did households and businesses want better service, but they were willing to pay for it. And together with allies, local officials came up with a plan for financial stability and success. OTO Fiber story is a testament to local resilience and resourcefulness in the face of obstacles and the value of never giving up. Now, here's Christopher talking with Belle.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today I'm speaking with Belle Ryder, the Assistant Town Manager for the town of Orono, and the President of OTO Fiber from the great state of Maine. Welcome to the show.
Belle Ryder: Thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: Maine is one of our favorite states at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. One of our fearless leaders grew up in Portland, he moved back there, and Maine is just a very special state. So I'm always excited when we can talk to anyone from Maine. And you are one of the original municipal fiber broadband projects in Maine, if I remember correctly. We're going to go through that some today. But, tell us a little bit about Orono, its claim to fame plus university system, and what people might see if they came to town.
Belle Ryder: Sure. So, Orono is a relatively big community for the state of Maine, but in terms of everywhere else, we're pretty tiny. We've got about 11,000 residents in Orono, probably about half and half students and year round residents. We are a great community for people who love the outdoors. We've got two rivers, lots of trail systems. And of course, the beautiful flagship campus of the University of Maine System. We pride ourselves on having one of the most diverse walkable communities, and at the same time, we really want to make sure that we make it a place that people want to stay after they have done their education at the university. To support that, we have been trying to get ultra high speed broadband into the community for more than a decade.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And actually, I want to come back to ultra high speed because I like that designation. Not going to settle for just high speed, and we'll talk about that. But first, for people that have a sense of where you are right now. You are the President of OTO Fiber, which is I think there's some excitement happening right now and tell us a little bit about what's happening.
Belle Ryder: Yeah. So, OTO Fiber it is a what's called a municipal nonprofit corporation, it's a 501(c)(3), and its members are the town of Orono, the city of Old Town, which is our neighboring community and the University of Maine System, which is kind of the parent of the University of Maine. The university is in our community.
Belle Ryder: We have deployed six miles of fiber, designed to be backbone but also last mile fiber within the community. And this is on a pilot basis, and we are getting ready to hopefully sign a contract soon within the next month to light up that pilot project. This is our proof of concept, and that we really do have people who are anxious to have like you said this better than high speed broadband, we want the ultra high speed broadband.
Christopher Mitchell: So, OTO Fiber will be delivering that to residents and businesses within a pilot project area?
Belle Ryder: Correct.
Christopher Mitchell: In the contract, are you going to be working with one of the other ISPs in Maine that goes out of their way to try to work with communities or is the contract with someone else?
Belle Ryder: So, we are signing a contract with a company that is an existing ISP in Maine, we hope to be signing a contract. They've done a good job of making sure that everybody is being considered in this contract, not just their best interests, but also the best interest of the network and making sure that it is sustainable.
Christopher Mitchell: It's great. Maine has several ISPs that seem to have another, "Every state has those." But I think it's relevant just since you don't have to develop a billing system and things like that you can rely on them for that sort of thing.
Belle Ryder: Absolutely. And it's going to be more on the Leverett Massachusetts model of this is OTO Fiber powered by somebody else, so that we can leverage their existing marketing, etc. Because we're an all volunteer board, and trying to get any project to happen with an all volunteer board is so hard, but particularly if you then have to supervise paid employees, and marketing, and complaints, and everything else. So, we are definitely outsourcing. We are outsourcing complaints and taking compliments in house. But I'm kidding.
Christopher Mitchell: That's a sustainable way to do it.
Belle Ryder: All right. But we want to make sure that we enter an agreement that is going to provide a good service to our residents. And by good service, we don't just mean that it's going to be ultra high speed, and that it's on fiber that the municipalities own, but also that there's going to be good customer service, and that complaints are addressed quickly, and that we have the best interest of our community in mind.
Christopher Mitchell: What we're about to go over is you're almost homeric, like the Odyssey efforts. And so I'm curious, you mentioned the all volunteer board, how many of them have been around since the beginning?
Belle Ryder: Nine members of the board, so three from each entity, and probably six of us that have been doing the long slog. Two of our members Bruce Segee and Jeff Letourneau, Bruce represents the city of Old Town and Jeff represents the University of Maine System, were actually involved in a Three Ring Binder project getting that funded way back. So, they've been at this trying to get fiber deployed for even longer than I have.
Christopher Mitchell: That was in the before times?
Belle Ryder: Yeah, I mean, 2007, 2008-ish, but in terms of this type of project, that is indeed dinosaur era.
Christopher Mitchell: Were you able to hook into that regional network then that would allow you to get on the Internet at a lower cost?
Belle Ryder: The Three Ring Binder is meant to be that middle mile, and it's all through, there's a big loop in Northern Maine and then a smaller loop in Eastern Maine, and then a bigger loop in Southern Maine, and they all meet in Orono area.
Christopher Mitchell: Smart to build the town there.
Belle Ryder: I don't know what we were thinking, how we were so prescient, but actually the University of Maine was placed in Orono because it is the geographic center of Maine. So, that is also convenient for running fiber throughout the state. Also, the University of Maine has Network Maine, which Jeff Letourneau is the executive director of and that runs the Maine's schools and libraries network. So, that gets internet service to all schools and libraries in the state of Maine if they choose to participate and I think most do.
Belle Ryder: So, he has a lot of experience, and while we are not able to directly connect our residents to that Three Ring Binder, because it's designed to be middle mile, we are able to leverage the connections that people already have with that network, and by people in the ISPs, in order to back home the service that they need in order to light up our network.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. Let's go back in time, let's go back to when perhaps you were fooled into joining this effort, told that with a few years of effort, you'll be able to have the fastest networks in the nation.
Belle Ryder: So, I started here in 2012, the July of 2012, and I came from a family boat building business, I have a mechanical engineering degree, and we built fiberglass boats. And then I decided I'm making a career change and landed in town management. And one of my very first council meetings was listening to a presentation about getting fiber deployed throughout the community, and that was a result of an effort that was spearheaded by the University of Maine and a group of interested Orono residents centered around gig.u.
Belle Ryder: And gig.u was a national initiative, and I believe there's still information out there about it. But the thrust behind that initiative was to get that ultra high speed broadband out into the communities that host research universities. And the idea was to erase the difference in whether somebody was working on campus or they were working from home. So, they would be able to maybe check in on experiments that are running on campus from their home, and it would be no different than if they were sitting in their office.
Belle Ryder: So, we had issued out an RFP asking if anybody would be interested, we did have one company come forward and say, "Yes, we're very interested in doing this. This is right up our alley, this is exactly what we want to do." Unfortunately, this was early on in our process, and we did the press release, and the big announcement, and the publicity before a lot of the research had gone into, "Is this actually possible for this company to do as a private company that is making an investment in the community?" It turns out, it just didn't meet their business model.
Belle Ryder: They have offered lots of support, whether it's talking to us about different types of models that they have seen in terms of municipal networks that are successful, or offering to be the provider of last resort if we were to get a network built, but they weren't able to build the network themselves.
Belle Ryder: So, when we understood that that wasn't going to work, we pivoted and started trying to seek some outside funding in order to get the network up and going, or at least the pilot up and going. We applied for a Northern Border Regional Commission grant, NBRC is how I will refer to it mostly. We applied to that for a couple different rounds before we finally were awarded one in 2015. So, we're already three years down my path on this journey, and we're just barely getting started.
Christopher Mitchell: All this time you have... I'm going to presume some kind of DSL available that probably is not very fast, not very reliable, and a cable system that is probably pretty similar to that.
Belle Ryder: Absolutely. So, one of the uncomfortable positions that Orono finds itself in is that we are too big to be able to finance a full build out ourselves, but too small to interest private equity in investing, we have bids of service that are too fast to be considered unserved, but too slow to be-
Christopher Mitchell: Good for economic development.
Belle Ryder: Right. It's okay if all you want to do is stream Netflix, but suddenly when you need to start sending information upstream just as much as you're bringing information downstream you get glitchy, you don't have a symmetrical service. And then you realize that, "Wow, I have 30 devices on my network right now, and so does my neighbor, and so does his neighbor, and we're all using a cable circuit and no wonder we're down to 10 down and one up." But that's not considered unserved.
Belle Ryder: When we applied for that NBRC grant, both communities put in a fair chunk of cash, as well as some in kind assets. And the University of Maine System offered their existing fiber network as a match in kind assets so that we would be able to actually over rush to their network. For those who aren't familiar with how fiber goes up, you're literally tying your cable to their cable. And while that doesn't seem like there's a lot of value in it, make ready, which is literally making space on the poles for your fiber costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time. So, having somebody who's already in the space is very valuable.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, when you say a lot of time, I was just speaking with someone in Connecticut that noted that Frontier has taken more than a year to respond to some make-ready efforts. So, it's real, real time.
Belle Ryder: Yeah, it is real, real time. And each time a cable, or a strand, or something has to be moved on a pole, whether it's up or down, or wherever it is that you're going to be making space for you. You are paying per pole. And if you look out in your neighborhoods, there's a lot of poles. So, it can be very costly.
Christopher Mitchell: And for people who are wondering, "Well, wouldn't it be easier to go underground?" The answer is no, not in Maine.
Belle Ryder: Absolutely. Frost is a real thing in Maine.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, and frost is easy compared to granite, right?
Belle Ryder: 100% true. So, when we had applied for that NBRC grant, we got that both communities have put up the money, the University of Maine had put up their fiber network, and then we had applied for a Connect Maine grant. Connect Maine is the entity in Maine that is supposed to redistribute the fees that are collected on your phone bills. In order to deploy internet service to places that either don't have it, it's supposed to be for unserved or underserved areas.
Belle Ryder: When we put in our application, we actually had the highest score application and we were awarded $100,000 from Connect Maine. And Time Warner at the time was our cable franchise in the community. And Fairpoint was the phone service.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Previously Verizon and now Consolidated?
Belle Ryder: Correct. Time Warner and Fairpoint both objected to the award of the grant to OTO Fiber. We spoke with Fairpoint, Fairpoint withdrew their objection, but Time Warner prevailed. And ultimately, they were successful in getting the grant removed from the OTO Fiber. And they said that because there was some service Connect Maine couldn't provide funding to places that were just underserved when there were still unserved areas in Maine.
Christopher Mitchell: That is something that we hear all over the place. I mean, this is the standard operating procedure for the cable companies is to try to make sure that as long as they can find a firm somewhere that doesn't have service, that they can make sure that towns that might be the hub of the entire region are left behind. And many of us really want to see every last firm connected, but we think that we need to blend and we need to make sure that the towns like yours are able to get some access before we filled in every last area in the most remote areas.
Belle Ryder: Absolutely. And I think that there's an important distinction to be made between the different ways that you are delivering broadband, and there's probably room for many different solutions, there's satellite, there's fixed wireless, but fiber based broadband is as future proof as we can make an installation at this point.
Belle Ryder: The equipment on either end to light things up and carry the information that gets upgraded every so often, probably every five to seven years or so. But the glass fiber in the middle, that stays the same pretty much and you can just continue to pass more and more information across the same physical infrastructure that's hanging on the poles. Not necessarily what you can say about copper.
Belle Ryder: But we picked ourselves up from losing that grant, and we continued forward. At the time that we were doing this, we were being told that what we really needed to have was a feasibility study done in the community to decide whether or not we truly needed this.
Christopher Mitchell: Who was telling you that?
Belle Ryder: It's more of like the "they," were telling us that. The amorphous best practices feeling that you got every time you talk to somebody who had had already done a project or was working on a project, or consultants who were probably trying to sell you their service. You heard, "You really should have a feasibility study. And that feasibility study is going to tell you if people want the service, and how much they'd be willing to pay for it and where it should go."
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I think there are merits to a feasibility study, but I also feel like it is the default answer when people aren't sure what else to do. Like, "What do we do? Let's do a feasibility study."
Belle Ryder: That is exactly what it was, "We need to do a feasibility study, we need to have..." We were thinking that what we were going to get out of it was a sales tool so to speak, on convincing the council's of both communities that this was a good project to invest further funds in after we got our pilot project up and going.
Christopher Mitchell: So, the leadership of the communities it's kind of willing to put some skin in the game, but recognizes that they can't fund the whole thing and is trying to figure out just how much it really wants to put all of its eggs in this basket. Is that more or less what's happening?
Belle Ryder: That's absolutely what's happening. We were able to do it without using what's called general fund taxpayer dollars. So, we were not affecting the tax rate yet, we needed to present a case as to how we were going to move forward, and was that going to involve general funds taxpayer dollars? And if it was, why was it a good reason to invest those funds?
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, as compared to a park, or a bridge, or various other things like that. I mean, City Council's have many priorities, and one of their job is to figure out what people want.
Belle Ryder: Our esteemed council chair, he's our chair now says that there's always infinite requests for resources and finite resources to fill them.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. And your job, I feel like is often to evaluate those too, to make sure that the council if they hear from someone who says, "A monorail will be a great idea." I think it's often your job to bring in the real cost analysis and benefits and that sort of thing as the assistant town manager, but the town manager is the same thing.
Belle Ryder: Absolutely. So, here I am wearing the hat of President of OTO Fiber saying, "This is an absolute great thing for the community and waving the cheerleading flag." And then on the other hand wearing my Assistant Town Manager hat saying, "All right, what is this really going to do for our community? And is this truly a good investment?" So, that's why we ultimately we did a feasibility study.
Belle Ryder: We made a few mistakes when we, I think, went and did our feasibility study. One of them was choosing a national firm versus a more local, Maine based firm that might understand the facts on Maine ground a little bit better. Maine doesn't have many local electric utilities, which makes it really hard because we don't own the poles, even in our urban areas and the town of Orono is considered part of the greater Bangor urbanized area according to the census.
Belle Ryder: We're still not very dense. We have between the city of Old Town and the town of Orono, there's probably one or two miles of neighborhoods where we have 100 homes per mile. And that's kind of like the baseline for most ISPs when they look at whether or not they're going to deploy fiber. We are a university town, the city of Old Town is a little bit more industry but most of our industry is brew pubs and restaurants, so not a lot of commercial activity to support what they would call commercial deployment of fiber where you charge more for a commercial entity versus a residential entity.
Christopher Mitchell: So, the feasibility study in some ways sets you back a little bit is what is sounding like.
Belle Ryder: Well, the great thing about the feasibility study is that it really sparked a lot of discussion with the board so you know we had started with this idea that we were going to hang some fiber and this was going to be dark fiber and we were essentially just like we do for the sewer system we were putting not pipes in the road but fiber on the poles and then it would be either the responsibility of the homeowner to connect to that fiber on the pole or pipe in the road, or it would be the responsibility of a service provider to do that. And that once we put up the infrastructure, the OTO Fiber would just back off and move on to the next project.
Belle Ryder: The feasibility study really sparked a lot of conversations, this dark fiber was still the primary idea but we started thinking a little bit more about what if we have to do a lip service and how would we do that?
Christopher Mitchell: Throughout all of this you're basically spending your nights just reading up on it and scheduling calls with folks on the Maine broadband coalition, I mean, how are you figuring this stuff out?
Belle Ryder: Like I said, we're very fortunate to have Jeff Letourneau who is a huge broadband advocate and professional, he does this for a living, to help educate us. He would send us some resources for us to research, to think about. We had some conversations with the consultant with the feasibility study about how other people are doing it and what other places we might want to look at and consider in terms of models but at the end of the feasibility study we essentially got the answers that we knew were coming or that, "Yes we do want it, yes people are willing to pay for it, and here are the places in general where we think that it should be deployed for the pilot project."
Belle Ryder: Then we started working on the RFP for designing the network, we had to refine where we decided to put the pilot project. So, we had three miles in each community of what we call the core project and then expansion neighborhoods in both communities. We were so pollyannaish that we could maybe get not only the core network built at that six miles but also maybe additional neighborhood expansions with our existing funding.
Belle Ryder: It took us a long time to write this RFP maybe six to nine months of going at first very slowly working on it and then concentrated effort on, "Let's finally get this thing done and pushed out the door." And get some good response back from several entities and chose tools and technologies to do the design on our pilot project. They did a great job working through it and then we had to put forward our RFP for construction.
Belle Ryder: Once again volunteer board, the RFP for construction takes longer than it should have to write, we get that published and it's a long process once you've published an RFP then you have to do a pre-bid meeting to get out any information that perhaps you didn't include, then you have to have a period where people can submit written questions and then you respond, and then you have to have another period where people are working on their submission and then finally the RFPs are due.
Belle Ryder: So, probably from the time you publish to the time the RFP is due is between six to eight weeks. So, it just takes time. We eagerly await the due date for the RFP response for construction and lo and behold we had one response.
Christopher Mitchell: That is not desirable.
Belle Ryder: Right. And this was in 2019, very early 2019. The response had come from Tilson and they were going to be the general contractor for the project. And we looked at the price and we're like, "We can't even afford to build the core project with this pricing. And talk to Tillson thinking, "Well, is there a way for us to value engineer, the project so that we still get a meaningful build out of it, so that we can actually build it with the funds that we have available?"
Belle Ryder: And they very generously offered to step aside and allow us to work directly with their subcontractor. Now, keep in mind, we're using federal funding for this, so we can't just call up the subcontractor and say, "Great, Tilson said they'd back out, so we'd like to sign a contract with you." We have to reissue the RFP, await this six weeks, we still get like one response back. This time, it's directly from iKON Connections. And we presto magical and with a little bit of tweaking we can afford to do the project that we want to do. We cannot do the expansion neighborhoods.
Belle Ryder: I should say that after we did the design RFP, part of that was actually putting in the pole license applications and authorizing the make ready. Because we were over rushing to the University of Maine fiber in a significant way, we decided to do the make ready and design for the expansion neighborhoods and the core network even without knowing whether or not we could afford to build the expansion at this time.
Belle Ryder: Here we are, it's now getting into late 2019 and iKON starts construction in a snowstorm. I remember driving down Main Street between my house and the town office and coming up on their truck parked at the top of the hill and getting a phone call almost at the same time from the Public Works director saying, "Is this your contractor? Because they really need to work on their in-roadway setup during a snowstorm, because there's going to be an accident." But they did a great job working through Maine winters. And by early 2020, we had fiber on the poles.
Christopher Mitchell: And nothing went wrong in 2020, so the story ends pretty quick.
Belle Ryder: Yeah, absolutely nothing. Nothing went on in 2020. It was super boring, but we twiddled their thumbs. I wish that was the case. Yeah, so 2020 was a bit of a shock, everybody had their own fires to fight within their own jobs that paid them their salaries. So, there was a little bit of a drop in activity, even though we now had the fibers on the pole.
Christopher Mitchell: Sorry to interrupt for a second, but was that a reconnect grant, can you remind me?
Belle Ryder: NBRC, Northern Border-
Christopher Mitchell: Oh, it was? Okay. So, NBRC wasn't canceled then, how did that-
Belle Ryder: We got the grant in 2015, and we ended up having to extend it a couple of times in order to continue spending the funds, because it did take us so long to get the construction done.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. But it was the ConnectMe grant that got canceled?
Belle Ryder: Correct.
Christopher Mitchell: Connect Maine. Yes.
Belle Ryder: So, the NBRC was the initial $250,000, the communities put up another roughly $225,000, and the University of Maine's fiber value was about 100,000. So, we've got a $550, $600,000 project hanging out there on the poles. When we started this whole process with the design, with everything else, we were envisioning this as a dark fiber network, that somebody else was going to do the drops between house or business and the fiber on the pole.
Belle Ryder: The finances just don't work out for that. If you were going to own the fiber on the pole, then you probably need to own the fiber to the house as well, so that if you ever change the provider, you don't then have some sort of conflict between the fiber on the pole and the service to the house. So, you want to make sure that one entity has the rights to all of that. We didn't have the money to do that and we were scratching our heads, looking around thinking about well how are we going to get drops funded and the next step moving forward on this fiber project.
Christopher Mitchell: And just for people's reference, I mean, each drop can be many hundreds of dollars when you include the electronics, the labor, that actual drop cable, it's non-trivial?
Belle Ryder: We are estimating about $1,000 per premise, so whether that ends up being a little bit less for someplace that's close to the road and a little bit more for a long driveway or something that's a little bit more complicated it should all average out hopefully a little bit less to $1,000 per premise. We're passing 450-ish premises with our pilot network and while we weren't planning to do a if you build it they will come type of deployment where every single premise would get a drop whether or not they ordered the service you're still looking at a substantial investment for drops.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, nearly doubling your budget.
Belle Ryder: Right. We had no money left. The town of Orono approached this, they were actually going out to bond for some other infrastructure projects, council agreed to put up a $250,000 what's called the general obligation bond so it's backed by the taxpayers of the town of Orono for fiber infrastructure in the town of Orono, and city of Old Town put forward $100,000 revolving loan fund for infrastructure in the city of Old Town.
Belle Ryder: At that point we knew that we at least had a way to fund drops, so getting from the pole to the side of the house. And now what we needed was somebody to light up the network, to provide service across the fiber network. That was our most recent RFP, which once again took a pretty long time to write. RFPs are easy if you know exactly what widget you're asking for and how many but when you're asking for people to kind of present a business case and that you don't necessarily know the right way to do it, it gets a little bit more difficult.
Belle Ryder: So, what we needed was a network operator, so essentially a caretaker for the network, and we needed an ISP to provide the service to the end user. Our preference was for the network operator and the ISP to be the same entity because that would reduce the work that OTO Fibers volunteer board would have to do, but we didn't know, we didn't know if there were companies out there that would be willing to do both or if they would prefer to partner with somebody else to do one and then they would do the other.
Belle Ryder: In many municipal networks around the country this is where you see those municipal utility companies stepping in, so they're often the network operator and then they have a contract with an ISP. So, the network operator owns the equipment on the customer's house and they're responsible if there's a fiber that's down or a physical break in the network, and then the ISP would be providing the service and so there's kind of a clear break between the two. We didn't have a municipal utility, we couldn't do that on our own so we wanted to hire that function out too.
Belle Ryder: And that brings us to today, we put out that RFP, we got responses back in January, we got them back in late January, this is now late March, we're still negotiating back and forth exactly how the partnership is going to work, but we're pretty confident that we'll be able to provide service over our pilot network and think we have a good plan to expand out beyond the pilot as well.
Christopher Mitchell: Has the town considered the tsunami of money from the federal government rushing towards you, that's some of which is earmarked for broadband and more of which could be used for broadband if they so chose?
Belle Ryder: So, we have definitely considered it, we are pretty aware of the rule that OTO Fiber really should play in that. We want to make sure that if there is a business case for having fiber broadband in the growth areas of the community that we allow a private company to go where the business case drives them to go, we don't want to subsidize a private entity like that.
Belle Ryder: But what we do want to do is we want to make sure that the places where there's only four houses on a street, where there's perhaps underground service or there might be 10 or 12 houses clustered pretty close together but they are five miles out of town that we work on getting the places where there isn't a business case. And with the new funding like I said we're in that uncomfortable place of underserved not unserved and so it all depends on how the rules are written.
Christopher Mitchell: As I understand it there's for a town like Old Town, it maybe only hundreds of thousands of dollars which for a town like Old Town only doesn't apply if you're getting hundreds of thousands of dollars but i think you'll have remarkable flexibility for that. And then there'll be other programs where they'll have stricter rules for it. But, am i understanding correctly then that basically in Old Town and Orono you may have a situation in which in the more attractive areas your partner may on their own dime expand the network? And then in parts of the area that they're not able to hit with their business plan then you may as OTO Fiber you might expand that and then they would be leasing that from you?
Belle Ryder: We are aware of that possibility at least, nothing is written in stone and we don't know for sure that that's exactly what's going to happen but when we developed our pilot we hit the densest areas that we could because we were doing this as a proof of concept and we wanted to show this is what could happen, but we always knew from the beginning that there were going to be places in the community that were going to be harder to make a business case for, even for you to get fiber.
Belle Ryder: And you're right there is money that is coming to the community as part of the American Rescue Act, the town of Orono, I think it's roughly a million dollars, and the city of Old Town I think is roughly $710,000 but unfortunately for broadband those funds have to compete with other types of infrastructure projects that have been kind of waiting for funding for many many years and-
Christopher Mitchell: Perhaps even decades.
Belle Ryder: Right. So you ask people, is it more important to get this street that continually floods rebuilt or is it more important to put broadband up? It's a conversation and a discussion and let me just tell you communities can spend a million dollars on very high priority infrastructure very quickly because there's a lot of things that have been underfunded for many, many years.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, and this is why local politics are important. So, people who go out and they vote based only on national politics and what they see on TV News they're missing an opportunity to make sure that these local questions are resolved the way they would like to.
Belle Ryder: Absolutely. And one of the things that Maine hardscrabble farmers and fishermen and everybody prides themselves on is that we are a self reliant community and Maine has a very strong municipal government and a very weak county government and that is very different in other states. And partnering together to try and get things that we need like this broadband network we're not big enough to do it by ourselves but together we might be able to make it work, I think is really important.
Belle Ryder: We don't want to necessarily call it local politics because politics just has a negative connotation to it, we want to say that the politics are left at the door and what's best for the community is what's considered in the council chambers that's important to Maine communities.
Christopher Mitchell: Good and I think the New England communities in Maine have that robust tradition that does result more often in people feeling hurt I think even if they don't get their way, so it's important.
Belle Ryder: Absolutely.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much for your time today. I just think that one of the reasons I like to talk to people like you in projects like this is to understand that in five or 10 years when everyone has this high quality network and people look back and they just take it for granted, that there's at least a record of the trials and tribulations you've gone through to make it happen and I really value that.
Belle Ryder: Well, it's like birthing an elephant, it is painful, and it takes a long time to first grow the elephant and then get it out there. But once you are through and on the other side, I think we'll really have something that kind of makes the community stand out and pleased with the end result.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Belle Ryder. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handles @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter, the handles @MuniNetworks.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was Episode 453 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.