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The failure of policy and leadership at the federal level in addressing the digital divide was ever more clearly exposed as Covid-19 restrictions were put into place last spring. And, as the pandemic continues to rage, daunting connectivity challenges remain.
Yes, the Connect America Fund (CAF) II program has doled out over $11 billion since 2015 in subsidies to the big telcos like AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier, Windstream, and Consolidated ostensibly to upgrade rural broadband to speeds of at least 10/1 Megabits per second (Mbps). But, as Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting notes, it’s been a massive subsidy failure given that “even in 2015, it was ludicrous to spend money to build 10/1 Mbps broadband” – the same year the FCC defined broadband as 25/3 Mbps, which means “the FCC was investing in new Internet infrastructure in 2015 that didn’t qualify as broadband at the time of the award of funding.”
And there is reason to doubt that those subsidized upgrades were even completed, even as the FCC just extended the CAF II program for a seventh year.
So as states — and in many instances, local municipalities — step into the breach, the National Governors Association has released a new report that outlines a list of strategies governors can use to increase broadband access in underserved communities.
Published just before Thanksgiving, the report first lays out the challenge:
According to the FCC, in 2018, at least 18.3 million people lacked access to fixed broadband in the United States that meets minimum [I]nternet access speed of 25/3. 1 Of those 18.3 million people, representing 6 percent of the total population, 14 million live in rural areas and 1 million live on Tribal lands, which amounts to 22 percent and 28 percent of those respective geographic populations [even as] studies have claimed that the FCC data is undercounting the number of people in the U.S. without fixed broadband access, and that the total may be as high as 42 million people.
Maine’s High-Speed Internet Infrastructure Bond Issue, which we first wrote about a month ago, has passed. 76% of voters said yes to Maine Question 1, which authorizes the issuance of $15 million in general obligation bonds to fund projects which will expand broadband access for residents in underserved and unserved areas. Underserved areas are those where less than 20% of the households have speeds of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. Unserved areas are those where broadband service isn’t offered by provider. The northern and eastern parts of the state suffer from particularly poor connectivity options. The money will join $30 million in additional federal, local, and private money, for a total of $45 million to be invested in the near future.
Where We Go From Here
The ConnectME Authority will administer the grants. It’s a significant injection of funds for the broadband authority, which has given out slightly more than a million dollars a year over the last ten years to build mostly last-mile connections and bridge the broadband gap. Passing the measure makes Maine the first state to bond to fund broadband projects, serving as an example to other states looking for avenues to do the same.
As it stands, somewhere around 83,000 households lack access, though this doesn’t include those families who can’t afford to subscribe. The impact of this digital divide has become even more starkly outlined over the last six months, and since the future of telework relies on affordable, reliable, high-speed connections, states that don’t commit resources to the problem will fall further behind.
A Concerted Effort
In less than a month Maine will hold a Special Referendum election which includes a measure with significant ramifications for Internet access in the state. On July 14, Mainers will be asked to vote Yes or No on Question 1, a $15 million Internet Infrastructure Bond Issue designed to bring high-speed service to the approximately 85,000 households in unserved or underserved areas.
The $15 million in general obligation bonds would go to the ConnectME Broadband Authority, which administers the state's broadband grants, to provide funding for projects with an emphasis on connecting unserved or underserved areas. This new funding would leverage an additional $30 million in matching federal, private, and local investments.
If voters approve the referendum, Maine will become one of few states (if not the first) to bond to fund broadband deployment, taking advantage of current historically low interest rates.
Meeting a Need
Tens of thousands of homes and businesses in Maine fall short of even the slowest upload and download speeds defined by the FCC as modern broadband. Those in the northern two-thirds of the 35,000-square-mile state deal with particularly poor conditions, with either no connectivity options or maximum download and upload speeds of 10/1 Megabits per second (Mbps). The ConnectME authority has given out $12 million over the last decade to fund projects, with an emphasis on last-mile connections, but broadband gaps still remain.
Nancy Smith, Executive Director of GrowSmart Maine, told WABI:
We know that access to high speed internet is critical for students to access education, even when they're at home. And for all of us to access medical care through tele-health. Investments in broadband are also critical to growing the economy and creating jobs, particularly in rural areas.
Mainers Weigh In
There is a festive air in Arrowsic, Maine, after Governor Janet Mills announced on January 30th that the community will develop a publicly owned broadband network for fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. The community will receive $1.2 million in combined grant and loan funding from the USDA's ReConnect Pilot Program to connect 237 households, 20 businesses, and four farms with symmetrical fiber optic service of up to 100 Mbps.
This will be a substantial upgrade because Arrowsic currently contends with patchy DSL connections that top out at 10 Mbps download through Consolidated, with upload speeds much slower. Poor connectivity has been affecting the economy at the local level because it's a strike against Arrowsic when people are looking to relocate to the region. Community leaders approached incumbent providers, including Consolidated and Spectrum, but the national companies rejected requests to serve the rural community with a small population of only around 450. Rather than settle for antiquated, poor serve, Arrowsic decided to pursue a community broadband network.
The 3 Bridged Islands Broadband Initiative (3BIB) is a nonprofit created by the towns of Arrowsic, Georgetown, and Southport. The organization first initiated a feasibility study, explored funding opportunities, and submitted the application for USDA grant to develop the network in Arrowsic. They've worked with Axiom to develop the design for the infrastructure and, according to the 3BIB website, intend work with private sector partners to offer services via the fiber optic infrastructure.
After the approval of USDA grant, the town of Arrowsic is now determined to close the digital divide and expects to do more to boost the local economy. The town is also looking forward to providing telehealth services to older people with chronic illness, increasing students’ ability to do research and complete assignments through better Internet connections.
D.J. LaVoy, the USDA rural development deputy undersecretary said in his announcement on January 30th:
Islesboro Municipal Broadband (IMB) is about to celebrate its second birthday. Instead of two candles on a cake, the community has around 630 lit Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) subscriptions to mark the occasion. With more than 90 percent of the premises on the island connected to the network, the community can revel in its accomplishment as it considers the future.
Super Affordable, Super Satisfied
Residents pay only $360 per year to connect to the gigabit service, which has become part of the "fabric of the island" says Roger Heinen, Selectman who's part of the Islesboro Broadband Committee. Property owners also pay a modest increase in property taxes to satisfy the municipal bond the community issued to pay for deployment. In total, most property owners pay less than $85 per month for gigabit connectivity and the optional voice service from GWI. In addition to bringing fast and affordable high-quality Internet access to the community, Roger says that its reliability is so consistent that he thinks people have forgotten what the situation was like before the community network served the island community.
Subscribers report high satisfaction with IMB on biannual surveys. While there are still a few people in the community that have not connected to the IMB, he speculates that those people aren't interested in connecting in any way.
Every connection in Islesboro provides gigabit Internet access and, according to Roger, the decision to limit offerings to one tier was a way for the community to reduce costs. There's no need for complicated inventories of different types of gear, they know that every premise has the same gear and level of service, making billing easier and more streamlined, and they received a substantial discount because they bought so many of the same type of electronics. They knew that standardization would simplify and reduce costs and wanted gigabit service because it accommodates future innovation that demands more capacity.
Community leaders in Rockland, Maine, hope to soon move forward on the first stages for publicly owned fiber optic infrastructure. The community of approximately 7,200 people approved the project in a 2016 referendum, but city council members decided to put the project on hold until previous bonds were paid.
Time to Move Ahead
According to local media outlet Village Soup:
In November 2016, Rockland residents voted 1,886 to 1,471 to approve borrowing up to $400,000 for the broadband expansion.
At the time, then acting City Manager Audra Caler Bell said the money would be used to construct a high-speed fiber broadband network that would be the backbone from which service could eventually be extended all over the city. The $400,000 would create a system to link municipal and school buildings and key downtown locations.
“I can’t stress enough how important an opportunity this is for our future,” Councilor Valli Geiger said at an August 2016 City Council meeting.
She said Internet service in Rockland is too slow for people who want to operate businesses.
In 2015, residents in Rockland, Rockport, and Owls Head completed a survey which indicated that people and businesses in the area wanted and needed better connectivity. In addition to the expressed need for better Internet access, people in the area supported the idea of municipal involvement in taking steps to improve local connectivity. The majority of folks who answered the survey stated that they would be willing to switch providers from their current ISP to obtain faster speeds and better services.
Rockport made history back in 2014 when it became the first town in Maine to develop a municipal network. The dark fiber network allows the community to work with private sector ISPs.
City Manager Tom Luttrell told Village Soup that the city anticipates reviewing requests in early November from companies interested in the deployment project.
Oakland, Maine, has asked the community to complete a survey in order to obtain a better picture of local connectivity. The town of about 6,300 people is investigating ways to expand how they use their existing publicly owned fiber optic system.
With an area of 28.17 square miles, Oakland is similar to other rural communities. The town, however, has a small fiber optic system and community leaders are researching how they can get the most from that resource to improve Internet access. Back in 2007, Oakland received a federal grant, which allowed the town to deploy fiber to select governmental buildings at the edge of Oakland’s downtown; the fiber is not connected to businesses or residences.
Currently, Spectrum Communications and Consolidated Communications offer cable and DSL Internet access to residences, but businesses have only one option -- Spectrum. According to Oakland Town Manager Gary Bowman, improving competition for economic development and better rates is a motivating factor:
"By taking advantage of our assets and expanding our current fiber optic infrastructure into the downtown district, we intend to attract additional Internet service providers into Oakland, with the long-term goal of servicing business owners with faster Internet and reducing their Internet costs.”
The Game Plan
Back in December of 2018, the Maine Community Foundation awarded $15,000 specifically for strategic implementation of broadband. Shortly after receiving the grant, on February 27th, 2019, the Oakland City Council voted unanimously to form the Oakland Broadband & Technology Committee (OBTC).
The Town Council appointed seven individuals on the committee and entrusted them with five main objectives:
Over the past few years, many cities in the rural state of Maine have begun exploring ways to improve local connectivity. Following in their footsteps, Biddeford has recently released a Request for Proposals (RFP) to assess Internet access in the community and develop a Broadband Plan. The RFP specifically notes this plan should include information on increasing digital inclusion in the city. Proposals are due April 26th.
Background on Biddeford
Biddeford (pop. 21,000) lies 15 miles south of Portland along the coast of Maine. Throughout much of the city’s history, textile mills were a major part of the local economy. After the decline of the textile industry in the region, the city redeveloped many of the abandoned mills and made attempts to revitalize the downtown area, resulting in a robust arts and food scene that belies the city’s modest size. (Eater even named a Biddeford restaurant as one of the “18 Best New Restaurants in America.”) These efforts, as well as a lower cost of living, have helped attract younger people to the area, making Biddeford Maine’s "youngest city" with a median age of 35.
SanfordNet Fiber, considered the largest fiber optic community network in Maine to date, is under construction and expected to be completed late in 2019. The project recently attracted the attention of WGME, who profiled the community and the investment as part of their “Working Solutions” segment.
Check out the video at WGME's website.
Taking Control in Maine
Reporter David Singer visited Sanford and nearby Millinocket to talk with business owners and economic development experts in both communities. Sanford, centrally located in the geographic center of southern Maine, was not connected to the Three Ring Binder, the state fiber optic network developed with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) during the Obama administration. "11,000 miles of fiber were strung up and down Maine but not in Sanford -- 10 miles to our east, 10 miles to our south,” said Jim Nimon, Executive Director of the Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council.
Rather than be left behind, the community of approximately 21,000 people decided that they needed to act on their own and pursue what has become known in the area as the “fourth ring.” Sanford’s project will emulate other projects in the state, and use the “Maine model.” The city is deploying the infrastructure and will work with private ISP GWI to bring gigabit connectivity to local businesses. GWI is a tested partner and will operate the network, having established a similar arrangement with Rockport. You can learn more about the “Maine model” in this conversation with GWI’s Fletcher Kittredge from episode 176 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast in 2015.
The neighboring towns of Orono and Old Town in Maine are working with the University of Maine System in an effort to bring better connectivity to their region. The three launched the nonprofit OTO Fiber several years ago in an effort to join forces for better broadband. After battling for funds with the incumbent cable Internet access company, they’re finally in a position to release a Request for Proposals (RFP) for fiber optic construction. Responses are due March 8th, 2019.
Open Access for A University Community
OTO Fiber aims to deploy an open access network in order to spur economic development, to encourage innovation and local entrepreneurship, and to improve access to University resources. The project described in the RFP is considered a pilot and will cover a limited area in each of the three communities. OTO Fiber’s intention for the pilot is to determine take rate and the benefits in order to establish whether or not to expand the symmetrical gigabit network to businesses and residents in both towns. Network designers have strategically developed a plan for the six-mile backbone to facilitate later expansion.
Orono is the location of the University of Maine’s flagship campus, where symmetrical gigabit connectivity is a necessity. According to the RFP:
The University of Maine System provides networking to schools and libraries across the State of Maine and provides multiple paths into and out of the State for research and education. Furthermore, the University is the largest concentration of computational resources and data storage in the State. These connections and resources, both computational and human, are expected to help make the proposed project successful.
In 2015, the OTO Fiber partners had been awarded ConnectME funds for the project, but cable ISP incumbent Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum) successfully blocked the $125,000 grant. The partners had planned to work with Maine ISP GWI for a stretch of about four miles in which 320 potential subscribers would have access to a larger network.