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The Ellsworth City Council voted on February 9th to proceed with the first steps to developing yet another municipal fiber network in Maine. Community leaders plan to develop open access fiber infrastructure. Five ISPs have already expressed an interest in working with the city to provide services via the network.
Ellsworth is home to approximately 7,500 people and is located along the south not far from the central coast.
The Ellsworth American reports that council members decided unanimously to lease a parcel of land on which to place a headend facility. The Ellsworth Business Development Corporation (EBDC), which also obtained a $250,000 grant to expand high-speed Internet in Ellsworth, will lease the property. The grant came from the Northern Border Regional Commission in 2014.
The Council also agreed to commit $28,445 in tax increment financing (TIF) funds toward the project. Those funds will be used for the headend building and to install a two mile stretch of fiber to tap into the community's abundant fiber resources. Community leaders want to create options for local businesses and the numerous home based businesses in Ellsworth.
“You have the superhighway already,” said Andy Hamilton, an attorney with Eaton Peabody who serves as legal counsel to EBDC. “But you need the off-ramp and the local roads to take you to the office buildings.”
Indeed, a report from Portland-based Tilson Technology Management said Ellsworth is located at “an information superhighway crossroads” and that it has a lot of fiber optic infrastructure — “more than most Maine communities.”
The network project is being developed in conjunction with a business incubator project in Ellsworth. Biotech and health science related businesses are abundant in the region and city leaders want to make the city attractive to the industry.
Council members are also considering the long term:
A group of municipal leaders and their private sector small ISP partners submitted an ex parte filing with the FCC today stating that they see no reason to fear Title II reclassification of Internet access. The statement, signed by a variety of towns and providers from different areas of the country is reproduced in full:
Dear Chairman Wheeler,
As a group of local governments and small ISPs that have been working to expand the highest quality Internet access to our communities, we commend you for your efforts to improve Internet access across the country. We are committed to a free and open Internet without blocking, throttling, or discriminating by ISPs.
As local governments and small ISPs, we wanted to ensure you are aware that not all local governments and ISPs think alike on matters like reclassification. For instance, on July 18, 2014, the mayors of New York City; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco called on you to issue the strongest possible rules to guarantee Net Neutrality. Each of these communities is also taking steps to expand and improve high quality Internet access to their businesses and residents.
Our approaches vary but are already resulting in the highest level of service available because we are committed to expanding high quality Internet access to supercharge local economies and improve quality of life. We have no interest in simply replicating older triple play model approaches. We want to build the infrastructure of the future and we see nothing in the proposed Title II reclassification of Internet access that would hinder our ability to do that. As Sonic CEO Dane Jasper has strongly argued, ISPs that don’t want to interfere with their subscribers’ traffic should expect a light regulatory touch.
We thank you for your leadership during this difficult period of transition. We understand that many of our colleagues have trouble trusting the FCC given a history that has, in many cases, ignored the challenges small entities face in this industry. But whether it has been increasing the speed definition of broadband, or calling for the removal of barriers to community networks, we have been impressed with your willingness to take on powerful interest groups to ensure the Internet remains a vibrant, open platform.
We look forward to working with you to ensure that future rules recognize the unique challenges of small providers and innovative approaches to expanding access.
Time Warner Cable recently fought to prevent a collaborative project in Maine from receiving $125,000 in state broadband funding, reported the Bangor Daily News.
We reported in December that Old Town, Orono, the University of Maine, and GWI had been awarded ConnectME funds. The collaborators earmarked the funding for a stretch of about 4 miles of fiber which could serve about 320 subscribers and would ultimately be integrated into a much larger network for businesses and residents. The network would connect to Maine's Three Ring Binder network.
Old Town and Orono want to establish gigabit connectivity to a nearby industrial area to transform it into a technology park for economic development purposes. Several businesses, including a health clinic that, have expressed interest in setting up shop in the planned development.
Old Town and Orono formed OTO Fiber, an independent entity to have authority to design, install, maintain, and manage an open access network. In typical fashion, TWC took action prevent local citizens and businesses from ever capitalizing on a gigabit, rather than work with the municipalities to deliver TWC services over the publicly owned infrastructure.
The ConnectME Authority voted in TWC's favor, based on the arguments as presented in an earlier Daily News article:
The company argues that the agency only has the ability to give grants in areas it deems “underserved” or “unserved,” and that projects getting grants should overlap with less than 20 percent of the customers of an existing provider.
Time Warner Cable began lobbying Maine legislators at the dawn of the legislative session, reports the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. In January, the cable gargantuan hosted a "Winter Policy Conference" for state lawmakers at the exclusive Inn by the Sea resort. As Maine state leaders contemplate how they can boost connectivity, the incumbents are fueling up the anti-muni misinformation machine.
The Center did not have exact numbers of legislators who chose to accept the invitation to stay overnight, attend the opening dinner, or sit in on the "information sessions" which were all paid for by TWC. Reports range from "about a dozen" attendees at the evening dinner to "30 or 35" attending the information sessions the next day.
Naturally, the event raised red flags:
“If we want good public policy, there’s reason for all of us to be worried,” said utilities expert Gordon Weil, the state’s first Public Advocate, who represented the interests of ratepayers before regulators. Such treatment of legislators is “obviously intended to persuade them by more than the validity of the arguments; it’s intended to persuade by the reception they’re given.”
The Center obtained copies of the information packet from the conference, which included a survey that had legislators questioning its objectivity:
“We see lots of surveys as policymakers and we have to be smart enough to look at what questions are asked,” said [DFL Rep. Sarah] Gideon.
Gideon was bothered by survey questions such as, “Should taxpayer-supported debt be used to build government-owned and operated broadband networks that sell broadband services to the public…where no broadband service currently exists…(or) broadband services are already available?”
“Nobody’s going to say ‘Yes, I want my state to incur debt,’” said Gideon.
Maine continues to be a hot spot in the drive to improve connectivity as the 2015 state legislative session opens. According to the Bangor Daily News, 35 bills have been introduced that deal with broadband issues.
The story also notes that several lawmakers have introduced bills that propose funding from the state. House Republican Norman Higgins advocates broadband infrastructure in rural areas of the state:
“I think most people understand that in this day and age for us to be competitive, that’s one of the necessary tools,” Higgins said, noting he’s found bipartisan support on the issue. “The question, I think becomes: How do we do it? And who does it?”
He proposes allocating millions of dollars to expand the availability of grants to municipalities that want to build and own high-speed fiber-optic networks that would be open to companies that want to serve businesses and homes, similar to the model pursued by Rockport, South Portland, Orono and Old Town.
Momentum is growing outside the Senate and House Chambers as well. In December, Governor LePage asked the ConnectME Authority to consider redefining "underserved" for projects it considers funding. The Authority obliged, reported the Bangor Daily News:
The new standard set Friday includes for the first time speed requirements for uploads, which supporters of the change said would serve small businesses.
The new standard would qualify any areas with broadband connections slower than 10 megabits per second for both downloads and uploads — a 10-10 symmetric standard — as “unserved.”
For those working on the issue of broadband, the energy is contagious:
“It’s exciting as someone who cares about broadband that there’s so much energy around it,” [public advocate with the Maine’s Public Utilities Commission Timothy] Schneider said. “And it ties into this whole trying to figure out how to do economic development not based around Maine’s legacy industries.”
Local communities in Maine are mobilizing to jumpstart economic development, expand educational opportunities, and improve Internet access. The town of Orono, located near the center of the state, announced earlier this month that it will working with nearby Old Town and the University of Maine to deploy an open access fiber network pilot project in an area they wish to promote as a technology park.
The news highlights connectivity improvements in Maine happening at the local level. In August, Rockport solidified its plans to bring fiber to its downtown with partner GWI. Soon after, South Portland announced a similar partnership with GWI to spur economic development. Sanford and Isleboro [PDF] have commissioned studies.
The Main Campus reports that Orono, Old Town, the University of Maine, and GWI have been in the planning phase for some time, but lacked funding to deploy:
“We tried to be the first on the map [with fiber-optics], but there were too many obstacles. Now we have the opportunity to do something,” said Orono Town Manager Sophie Wilson at last Monday’s Economic Development Committee meeting, where the opportunity was presented.
In early 2012, the town was in talks with Old Town and Maine broadband service provider GWI about connecting the towns and the University of Maine to the Three Ring Binder, an 1,100-mile long highway of fiber optic infrastructure that passes underneath Bennoch Road. In order to take advantage of the opportunity, the towns planned on coming together in a collaborative called Old Town-Orono Fiber (OTO Fiber) and applied for grant funding to go through with the project.
Although they weren’t able to receive the necessary funds in 2012, the town is in a better position this time around.
By building a fiber line to allow some local businesses to get next-generation Internet access, Rockport became the first municipal fiber network in the state of Maine. Town Manager Richard Bates joins us for episode 115 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
We discuss the financing behind the network and their partnership with local Internet Service Provider, GWI, to improve access to the Internet. Bates also explains how they had to ask voters for authorization to use a tax-increment financing approach to paying for the network to spur economic development. Nearby communities have been watching to see what happens.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to The Bomb Busters for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Good To Be Alone."
Rockport, a coastal town of just 3,300, became a statewide leader last month by launching Maine’s first municipal broadband network. Offering symmetrical gigabit speeds to businesses and residents, Rockport’s network is a carrier-neutral dark fiber system, with local private provider GWI offering retail services.
The reach of the network is limited, as it consists of only 1.2 miles of fiber. While only about 70 homes and businesses currently have the option to purchase a connection, GWI offers symmetrical gigabit per second internet access for just $69 per month and the city has left the option open to expand the network in the future.
As noted in a Bloomberg View article on the network, it massively outpaces the only broadband competitor in Rockport, Time Warner Cable. Time Warner also offers a $70 service package, but its download speeds are 20 times slower and its upload speeds 200 times slower.
The network was the product of a partnership between the town board, GWI, the University of Maine system, and Maine Media Workshops + College. Maine Media is a nonprofit college with 1,500 students learning photography, videography, and other digital media skills, and has a large economic footprint in such a small town.
Students’ coursework requires the storing and sharing of massive files, something that was previously difficult or impossible to accomplish given limited network capacity. Town officials are hoping that the new network will not only allow students to learn more easily, but enable them and others to establish small businesses in town.
U.S. Senator Angus King, a vocal champion of broadband access, was among the officials on hand last week for the official unveiling ceremony. Speaking to the need for greater internet access, Senator King stated:
“In my opinion it’s exactly like water, it’s exactly like electricity, it is a public utility that is necessary in order for our economy and our country to flourish…We want to work where we live, rather than live where we work."
Sanford, a city of about 21,000 in far southwestern Maine, is weighing its options for a limited fiber optic network. The Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council has been the driving force behind the project, hiring Tilson Technology Management of Portland earlier this year to develop a Broadband Plan for Sanford.
The Growth Council began exploring broadband issues only after realizing late last year that they had been left out of Maine’s “Three Ring Binder,” a federally-funded high capacity fiber backbone running through much of the state in three loops. Wary of being left behind economically by neighbors with better communications infrastructure, the Growth Council hired Tilson to evaluate their options.
The resulting report has not been made publicly available, but according to an op-ed by James Nimon, the Growth Council’s executive director:
Tilson has completed their assignment and provided “Good,” “Better” and “Best” alternatives, with the conclusion that the implementation of the Broadband Plan’s ‘Best’ scenario, which connects all the key CAIs [community anchor institutions] in Sanford, “has the potential to provide impressive public economic benefits, including adding between $47 and $192 million to the Sanford-Springvale region’s economic output over the next ten years.”
The anchor institutions to be connected include municipal buildings, local schools, a mill yard, a hospital, and industrial parks. According to a recent Sanford News article, the costs projected by Tilson range from $362,000 for the most limited deployment to $961,000 for the “best” alternative.
The city and the Growth Council will now begin the process of exploring federal, state, and private partnership funding opportunities, in an effort to bring the advantages of a high speed fiber network to their community.
“We will plant the first seed in fertile economic soil,” he said.