Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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Born in Orono, Maine, the poet Frances Laughton Mace’s most notable verses were published in 1854 as a hymn entitled “Only Waiting.” Over a century and a half later, residents in her native town – and in the neighboring community of Old Town just four miles up the road – might be inclined to hum a line or two. Not because they are getting religion, but because of the wait in getting Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet connectivity.
After a decade of hopeful planning, disappointing setbacks, design work, and putting out multiple RFPs to move the project forward, the nonprofit OTO Fiber Corporation is on the verge of lighting up a six-mile fiber network this summer. With three miles of fiber deployed in Orono, a town of 11,000 residents and home to the University of Maine’s flagship campus, and the other half covering a portion of Old Town, the budding network will provide FTTH service to a limited number of residences and businesses in both towns. It’s a pilot project that, if successful, will serve as a core network which can eventually be extended to cover the entirety of both communities.
“It’s taken us forever to get to this point it seems. We started this process ten years ago and we are still slogging our way through while we’ve seen other communities zip ahead,” Belle Ryder, Orono Assistant Town Manager and President of OTO Fiber, told us this week. “It is really, really, really hard for communities relying on volunteers to pull off the feat of building and operating these networks.”
Ryder wasn’t complaining or exasperated. She was just being candid about the process she and her colleagues at OTO Fiber are committed to see through to the finish. The slog she is referring to goes back a decade when Orono was in the process of putting together a comprehensive development plan.
Families and Fiber, Fits and Starts
With just about half of the town’s population made up of college students living in off-campus apartments and the other half made up of residents 60 and older, “we really needed to draw families back,” Ryder explained.
In an effort to keep families connected as schools and workplaces close in response to the novel coronavirus, many Internet service providers (ISPs) are taking steps to make their services more accessible and functional for those of us who are staying home for the foreseeable future.
Some policies are being officially encouraged by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) through Chairman Ajit Pai’s new Keep Americans Connected Pledge. By signing onto the pledge, providers agree to open Wi-Fi hotspots to the general public and to not disconnect or charge late fees to those struggling to pay bills due to the pandemic.
To ensure people have sufficient connectivity during the public health crisis, some ISPs are going beyond the pledge’s requirements by raising speeds, suspending data caps, and offering free Internet access to certain households.
While these efforts will not close all of the digital divides being exacerbated the pandemic, they are an important step toward mitigating the immediate impact on families and businesses.
Keep Americans Connected Pledge
FCC Chairman Pai announced the Keep Americans Connected Pledge last Friday, March 13. The pledge calls on ISPs to make Wi-Fi hotspots publicly accessible and to keep households and small businesses that are facing financial difficulties because of the pandemic connected over the next couple months.
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.
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 City of Sanford, Maine, is putting the final pieces of funding in place to move forward with its ambitious 45-mile fiber optic build, SandfordNet, the largest fiber infrastructure build proposed in Maine to date.
Along with two other funding sources, the project will be financed by an existing Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district in downtown Sanford. According to the Journal Tribune, the project will cost $2.02 million in total to complete; that figure is higher than initially projected, due in part to fees to access utility poles.
The SanfordNet project involves building what the city describes as a “fourth redundant ring” that will attach to the statewide fiber loop known as the “Three Ring Binder.” Sanford’s building out the 45 miles of fiber and then connecting it to the Binder, which is about nine miles beyond city limits. The fiber will connect nearly 90 Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs), such as libraries and hospitals, to the infrastructure that will offer 10 Gigabit per second symmetrical upload and download capacity. The city is utilizing an open access model, leasing out its fiber to ISPs in a non-discriminatory approach that promotes competition.
GWI of Biddeford, Maine, will operate the network for Sanford and intends to offer Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to residential premises along the fiber route in areas where there's sufficient demand. The open access model will create the opportunity for competition, creating better rates and better services for Mainers in the region. For more on what has become known as the "Maine Model," check out Christopher's conversation with GWI's CEO Fletcher Kittredge, episode 214 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
Where the Project Stands
When the announcement came out in 2015 that Sanford, Maine, would invest in the state’s largest municipal fiber optic network, media outlets were abuzz with the news. The situation has quieted down as the community has been working to plan for the project. Earlier this month, Sanford released its second Request for Proposals (RFP) for Fiber Optic Construction for the network; responses are due May 2nd.
Back when the city began the process of investing in publicly owned Internet infrastructure, they conducted an original RFP process and selected a construction firm. Before the project began, however, Sanford won a significant award from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) and, according to the EDA, the city’s RFP process did not conform to EDA bid process requirements. In order to accept the award, the city needs to re-run to RFP process.
The project will cost approximately $1.5 million and, with the federal grant slated to pay for around half at $769,000, Sanford officials see the benefit of taking the time to release a second RFP. The city will use proceeds from the sale of a former school property to fund the remaining. They anticipate construction to begin in July and estimate the project will be completed and the network will be ready to operate by November.
As the RFP states, the project will connect approximately 85 community anchor institutions (CAIs) to a network of about 40 miles of fiber and to the state’s middle mile Three Ring Binder. In addition to City Hall, they intend to connect schools, healthcare facilities, libraries, and public works buildings. There are also a significant number of business locations on the list of addresses that Sanford officials want connected to the network. The community has already chosen Maine’s GWI to operate the open access network.
You can listen to our conversation with CEO Fletcher Kittredge in episode 176 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. He and Christopher discuss Sanford and other projects in Maine.
Sanford And The Region
Two and a half years ago, the city council in Ellsworth, Maine, voted to take the first steps toward better connectivity through a publicly owned fiber optic network. On August 29th, the community held a “Lighting Presentation” to kick off the realization of its vision.
Already Serving Businesses
The three-mile open access network is already serving local establishments and the Union River Center for Innovation, but local officials and business leaders gathered with U.S. Senator Angus King for the ceremony to celebrate.
“Connectivity levels the playing field for those of us who are small business owners,” said State Senator and local business owner Brian Langley.
Ellsworth obtained a $250,000 grant for the project from the Northern Border Regional Commission. In addition to approximately $28,000 in tax increment financing (TIF), the city council decided early in the planning process to dedicate $30,000 to the project to extend it an additional mile. Ellsworth obtained additional capital when it sold property that was the site of a former community owned nursing home. In total, Ellsworth contributed $110,000 to the project costs.
Keeping It Local
Ellsworth owns the new infrastructure and Maine’s GWI is using the fiber to provide Internet access to businesses and institutions along the route. GWI, which is also working with other Maine communities like Sanford, Islesboro, and South Portland, is the first of what Ellsworth hopes will be several ISPs to use the infrastructure.
Sanford, Maine’s plan to build a municipal open access fiber-optic network just got the shot in the arm it needs to move forward. On September 27th, the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) awarded the community $769,000 in grant funding to complete the $1.5 million project.
Mightiest Muni In Maine
About a year ago, we shared details about the plan to deploy what will be the largest publicly owned fiber-optic network in the state. The 45-mile network will run through Sanford, but will also travel through Alford, Kennebunk, and Wells and will connect to Maine’s statewide network, the Three Ring Binder. “We’re creating the fourth ring on the 3-Ring Binder,” said City Manager Steve Buck, in a recent Journal Tribune article.
The city of Sanford will own the infrastructure and GWI, headquartered in Biddeford, will operate the network. GWI does not have an exclusive agreement, so other providers could also offer Internet access or other data services over the infrastructure. For the time being, the network will serve primarily community anchor institutions (CAIs), government facilities, and business customers.
GWI also intends to offer residential Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to properties along the fiber route in areas where there is sufficient demand. They will make Gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second) symmetrical connectivity available so speeds will be the same for download and upload. Other providers may use the backbone to offer similar services; the backbone will have 10 Gigabit symmetrical capacity.
Economic Development Needed
As the next President considers how to improve rural Internet access, the administration will have to decide where to focus policy. Some at NTIA - the National Telecommunications Information Administration, a part of the federal Department of Commerce - have argued for more middle mile investment. NTIA oversaw major investments in middle mile networks after the stimulus package passed in 2009. To discuss the relevance of middle mile investment against last mile investment, we brought Fletcher Kittredge back, the CEO of GWI in Maine. Fletcher has extensive experience with both middle mile and last mile investments. We talk about whether more middle mile will actual incent last mile investment and, more importantly, how to build middle mile correctly to get the best bang for the buck. Along those lines, we talk about avoiding cherry-picking problems and one of my favorites, how to ensure that rural investment does not inadvertently promote sprawl.
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Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."