Originally published in Castine Patriot, September 27, 2018 and Island Ad-Vantages, September 27, 2018 and The Weekly Packet, September 27, 2018
Can small towns bring fast internet service to all? Many are trying
by Anne Berleant
Who doesn’t want great internet service? In an increasingly technological age, having a fast, reliable connection is about sustaining a community, not just streaming Netflix. But for small towns with low population density, the path towards that level of service can be complicated, especially when it comes to funding.
“The most common misperception in towns is that someone (a provider) is just going to come and do this for them,” said Axiom Technologies President Mark Ouellette. “It really takes serious and prolonged engagement by the community with potential providers to obtain better connectivity.”
Axiom, based in Machias, is working with Stonington, Brooklin, Brooksville and Penobscot on the first step towards broadband service: designing a feasibility plan that includes what the current coverage is, what is needed, ways to get there, and cost and funding options. Rockland-based Island Institute, through its Broadband for Island and Coastal Sustainability Team, has provided some grants to towns for feasibility studies.
But actually installing service can cost millions. And while the USDA Rural Utilities Service has $600 million in federal money to give for expanding broadband service over the next five years, how much will come to Maine is unknown.
ConnectME, the state broadband authority, has proposed that the state will contribute 25 percent of the total cost of the expansion needed for rural Maine, which it projects will cost $150 million.
Planning for the future
Locally, towns are in different stages of broadband planning but many of their reasons are similar. For example, when Stonington began to address a significant decline in its year-round population, “improved communications came up as something that could potentially make a real impact,” Stonington Economic Development Director Henry Teverow said.
Stonington issued a request for information (RFI) for designing an internet system that was high speed and “future-proofed” and available to anyone who wanted to hook into it, Teverow said. The town contracted with Axiom, and received a $15,000 grant from the Island Institute to pay for the plan. Teverow believes that the effort for Stonington broadband will work.
“I wouldn’t be working on it if I wasn’t hopeful,” he said.
On September 13, Teverow, selectmen, town managers and citizens from several neighboring towns convened as the Peninsula Utility for Broadband, a grassroots coalition started by Blue Hill resident Butler Smythe and Joel Katz of Penobscot. At the meeting, committee members updated each other on where their town stood in its broadband effort.
Penobscot recently signed on with Axiom for a feasibility plan, using town funds approved by voters earlier this year, although Katz is concerned over funding.
“Rules for the USDA fund are being developed and those funds, grants or loans won’t be available soon,” he noted prior to the meeting. “Maine has zero dollars [for] broadband in the fall election bond issues.”
In Brooksville, an active broadband committee meets regularly, and the town has received grant funding from the Island Institute to partially fund the town’s RFI to design and enhance its broadband capabilities.
Brooklin, which began planning after voters approved $25,000 in funding a broadband initiative in 2016, is working with service vendors, after completing a survey that identified 80 home-based businesses in the town. The town also determined it would cost upward of $2.1 million to build a fiber network to the 423 homes that could be served.
In Deer Isle, a small committee is working on an RFI, Town Manager Jim Fisher said. Sedgwick has just formed its own broadband committee, and Castine is “in a very early stage of exploring the ‘whys’ for broadband improvement,” Selectman Colin Powell said. “Unlike many towns, Castine has fairly decent coverage by one provider, and mediocre coverage by a second.”
In Surry, Consolidated Communications is replacing utility poles along Route 176 and Route 172 that will accommodate broadband wires. The town chose not to be represented on the Peninsula citizens’ coalition.
Blue Hill Selectman Jim Schatz said that the town plans to work with Spectrum to see if it can broaden its service area as the town negotiates a renewal of its franchise contract this year—a fact that may give the town leverage.
“Our objective will be to push service out into [unserved] neighborhoods,” Schatz said.
(Maine recently aligned its definitions of “unserved” and “underserved” to current federal standards requiring a higher speed of information transfer than the state previously used.)
A Blue Hill broadband committee formed in 2017, when the town was awarded $1,000 by Eastern Maine Development Corporation for a user survey, but disbanded after the survey was completed; however, Smythe started a new one earlier this year that is looking into “what vendors do to support broadband-related efforts in Maine,” he said.
Whether the coalition will provide strength through numbers in pushing for better service or lower installation costs remains to be seen. When installing fiber for broadband can cost up to $20,000 a mile, the population density makes many small towns a losing proposition for large companies. But one thing all members at the September 13 meeting agreed on was that the question was not whether broadband was necessary but how to get their towns wired.