Rural Maine IT broadband expansion gets $25.4 million Recovery Act grant

By Ramona du Houx

January 3rd, 2010 

altThe U.S. Department of Commerce awarded a $25.4 million grant for construction of a fiber-optic network that will expand high-speed Internet to rural communities that have little or no access.

Called the Three Ring Binder, the project involves the construction of a 1,100-mile network of high-capacity fiber-optic cable through northern, western, and Downeast Maine.

“With 36,000 telephone poles needed to go up right away, and with new construction jobs, Mainers will be put to work immediately. When completed, it will allow University of Maine students to take courses from other universities around the world, and doctors at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor to diagnose patients hundreds of miles away. And businesses will be able to increase their markets,” said U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke on a conference call. Locke visited Orono to announce the grant. “The projects receiving funds today are the first in the $7.2-billion program. Maine’s is one of the largest in the country.”

The infrastructure for broadband has been growing in the state since Governor John Baldacci introduced ConnectME, with grants that targeted areas of the state that had no form of broadband or terrestrial high-speed Internet service available. In 2007 a $3-million state appropriation, designed to boost economic growth in Maine through research and development, helped pay for a fiber-optic network. The Tree Ring Binder builds upon this work, connecting one-fifth of Maine’s households to it.

This collaborative effort among established Maine telecommunications companies, and Maine institutions will enhance broadband Internet access.

“This federal Recovery Act funding will help people across the state access technologies that are critical to our educational aspirations, our health, and our workforce development and economy,” said Governor John Baldacci. “We know the people of Maine can successfully compete anywhere in the world, but to realize opportunities and grow jobs, we need to ensure they have access to the latest technology. We need to enhance these Internet connections to compete in the global economy.”

The grant will fund Maine’s rural broadband infrastructure as part of a “middle-mile project,” which connects community “anchor institutions” to improve delivery of critical services as well as connecting thousands of people to broadband.

“A group of us have been working for several years now to improve Internet access for rural Maine. Over and over we heard that the biggest obstacle was the lack of a middle-mile network that could act as the backbone for Internet providers and others,” said Fletcher Kittredge of GWI, a telephone and Internet provider which was the primary sponsor of the Three Ring Binder proposal.

The Three Ring Binder will serve as a central artery for data transmission. Carriers who serve customers directly would use the network, as would large institutions with a high demand for data transmission.

The project consists of three “rings” of high-capacity fiber-optic cable. One loop will service northern Maine; another will extend from the Midcoast to Downeast, while a third will enhance Internet connections in western Maine. Those rings would be a shared resource, open to all qualified Internet providers.

There are 10 internet service providers that have expressed interest in purchasing or leasing space in order to provide service to homes, businesses, and community anchor institutions, such as hospital, schools and libraries.

The project’s total cost is estimated at $32.5 million and would bring broadband to communities with 110,000 households, 600 anchor institutions, and 38 government facilities. It will also enable the University of Maine System to expand its own high-speed data network to ten campuses, and it will enhance the broadband capacity at three of the state’s community colleges.

“With better access to the Internet, transmission needs can finally be met. It will allow us to level the playing field for our companies in the global economy. And for many veterans, this will help them receive the rural healthcare that they need,” said Rep. Mike Michaud.

The Three Ring Binder would have direct benefits for the New England Telehealth Consortium and the Franklin County Healthcare Network, as they implement their plans to establish advanced healthcare networks as part of the FCC’s Rural Healthcare Pilot Program.

“The project will have a significant impact on the economic development for the regions it serves,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree. “Living on the island of Vinalhaven, I know how important the Internet is to our community, schools, health care, and businesses. This will give economic development a needed boost.”

The Three Ring Binder will be privately owned and operated by Maine Fiber Co., which will offer access on its high-capacity, fiber-optic network on an equal basis to all Internet and telecommunication providers interested in serving rural Maine. The proposal includes rules that would prevent any one company from monopolizing the capacity of the network. No carrier will be able occupy more than 25 percent of the network.

Local schools and libraries will also have better broadband access.

Early work on the project has already started, and it is expected that full-scale construction of the network will get underway in the spring. Parts of the network could be in use by the end of 2010. The project must be fully completed within two and a half years.