Time to Cover Maine with Broadband
By Ramona du Houx
In today’s world, economic development happens at a faster pace where there’s high-speed broadband Internet. With broadband, people can have businesses that are internationally connected, without having to be located inside big city centers. With broadband, instead of relocating to where the job is—the job can be where you live.
The presence of a healthy labor market made up of skilled and educated workers was the most important consideration of 21 employers who created jobs in Maine during the past year, according to a Portland Press Herald job-creation survey. The next-highest-ranked issue was access to high-speed Internet service.
Currently, 97 percent of American consumers look online for goods and services, but only 41 percent of Maine’s small businesses have a website, according to Scott Levitan, director of marketing at Google. Why? Some businesses have opted out of building a website because they don’t have broadband accessibility. According to a report issued in January 2015, 22 percent of the population in Maine still does not have access to high-speed Internet.
And fiber-optic cables, the best choice for broadband, are more reliable, being impervious to weather conditions, electrical surges, radio waves, and other environmental conditions that can otherwise result in signal loss and failure.
Jim Gerritsen, who owns and operates Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater, spoke in Augusta for legislation to help expand broadband. His specialty organic potato farm is dependent on technology. When they lost Internet service one day, everything backed up. “We could not download orders, process credit-card transactions, print shipping labels, track packages or manage online banking,” he said. “We kept our crew of ten working. But the next day, when service was restored, we had twice as much to do. Poor Internet service costs our company $10,000 a year in lost productivity.”
A study of over 350 businesses commissioned by the Fiber to the Home Council found that businesses with fiber-optic broadband saved an average of 20 percent on their operating expenses each year.
“Rural Maine has some of the worst Internet in the country,” said GWI CEO Fletcher Kittredge, member of the Maine Broadband Coalition. “The poor quality of Maine’s Internet infrastructure retards the economic development of all of Maine, not just rural regions.”
The Internet and commerce have become so intertwined, 34 percent of new commercial jobs created are directly attributable to broadband Internet access.
Cities looking to expand broadband—
Bangor City officials formed a task force designed to explore options for improving fiber-based broadband Internet access throughout the city.
“The first goal is to identify what we have for broadband versus what we could have,” said Councilor Joe Baldacci, who proposed the task force and serves as its chairman. “The second goal would be to see how feasible it is to make some improvements all over the city.”
Baldacci proposed a public-private partnership consisting of interested businesses and state and federal governments to help pay for augmenting and adding to the needed Internet infrastructure.
“Every community is going to have to look at expanding their networks. It’s about keeping an economic competitive edge—about being able to offer businesses the best available broadband,” said Baldacci. “We have a cross section of the community on the task force. People from university, the business community, the chamber, and some from downtown businesses.”
Other Maine cities that are exploring public-private partnerships to help expand broadband access include Portland, Old Town, Orono, Islesboro, Sanford, Ellsworth, and Bar Harbor.
Rockport already has become the state’s first town to build out their own broadband network with GWI. The town of only 3,300, turned the switch on their fiber-optic network in 2014, after investing about $70,000 towards the network in tax increment financing, private investment, and Maine Research and Education Network funding. South Portland financed their own broadband expansion, paying to install new fiber-optic lines to carry as much as a 1GB signal.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines high-speed Internet by broadband benchmark speeds of 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads. Under these standards, the FCC’s study found that 52 million Americans, or 16 percent of the overall population, are without access to high-speed Internet. That number was even higher in rural communities, where 53 percent of the population lacks access.
The ConnectME Authority in January 2015 set a standard for Maine at 10 Mbps but only 10 percent of the state’s service is available at 10Mbps speeds.
While Bangor has fiber-based broadband access in key areas, there are still “glaring, gaping holes,” according to Jeff Letourneau, executive director of Networkmaine.
But Maine is fortunate to have built the Three Ring Binder as a backbone for broadband.
The Binder serves as a central artery for data transmission. The network encompasses 110,000 households, 600 schools, libraries and other institutions and 38 government facilities. And it connects Maine to Halifax and Boston.
It was called the Three Ring Binder for the three rings of fiber optics that circle and wind through a 1,100-mile network via northern, western, and Downeast Maine. The federal government issued a $25.4 million Recovery Act grant to jumpstart the project, which supported about 400 jobs, including 323 full-time positions.
Telemedicine is an example of the life-critical applications now running on the Three Ring Binder network. Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick transfers large files, such as CT scans, to specialists at other hospital, enabling faster diagnoses and treatments. Telemedicine services and mental-health counseling have also been enhanced through videoconferencing to patients who are housebound.
Greenwood uses access to ensure the town’s plow drivers are aware of storm conditions. Scarborough uses it to interconnect municipal buildings, including public safety locations. The University of Maine System uses the system as the broadband backbone to connect all of its campuses.
The binder’s middle-mile is built in a ring architecture, which protects against failures from a single fiber cut. The middle-mile is like the Interstate Highway System. The Interstate System lets you go much faster than you can on other roads, but it’s also limited access. You get on and off at designated exits, and there are no homes and very few businesses directly accessible from it. To get to those houses and businesses, one has to get off the highway at an exit and take another road and then a side street. Those connecting roads are ISPs that are the “last-mile networks.” So people living in urban areas within the Three Ring Binder may not have broadband access, because their ISP is not connected to the to a “last-mile network.”
While the Three Ring Binder network has opened the door for many businesses, educational and health institutions, there are some, “holes” that need coverage.
Information Technology infrastructure has been growing in the state since former Governor John Baldacci introduced the ConnectME Authority, which identified where broadband or terrestrial high-speed Internet was needed and then dispersed grants to those areas to help them “connect” with the global economy. 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 built upon this effort, but now the ConnectME Authority needs more funding.
The ConnectME Authority is one of the smallest state agencies. Its resources are so limited, they have no Internet engineers on staff, and it depends on outside volunteers to review grants for technical feasibility.
There are 35 different broadband bills under consideration in the Legislature; some will be resolved next year.
LD 1063, An Act to Promote Community Broadband Planning and Strengthen Economic Opportunity throughout Maine, is now law. LD 1063 would help more areas of the state plug into the Three Ring Binder and develop a plan to meet them by providing grant funding, technical assistance, and the most up-to-date research and best practices in broadband technology. The law would accomplish this through the existing resources of the ConnectME Authority.
“It’s clear we need a 21st-century infrastructure solution if Maine is to surge ahead and create good jobs with strong wages regardless of where you are in the state,” said Assistant House Democratic Leader Gideon, the sponsor of LD 1063. “Continued investment in broadband will lead to an acceleration of economic benefits for our state. If we are going to compete in the global economy, we need to think about how we use that infrastructure to become a producer of goods and services, an exporter, a revenue generator.”
LD 1185 “An Act To Establish the Municipal Gigabit Broadband Network Access Fund” Sponsored by Rep. Norman Higgins also became law, with $500 as a start.
Another bill to be taken up next year, LD 826, would increase ConnectME’s funding to help bring broadband access to more of rural Maine.
“The poor quality of Maine’s Internet is driving people and investment away. If we build a superior Internet, that will reverse and people and investment will be drawn to our state,” said Kittredge giving testimony in favor of LD 826. “The ability to count on a network resource being available to all citizens opens up a set of new choices for economic development and new markets for businesses.”
“Broadband is severely limited in areas like Aroostook County and other rural parts of Maine,” said Rep. Robert Saucier, the bill’s sponsor. “There are many farms, homes and local businesses that would benefit from faster and higher-quality Internet.”
Businesses need high-speed Internet access to help them thrive in today’s global economy.
More than two dozen rural farmers, residents and business owners who struggle to maintain their businesses and ship their goods because of slow, spotty or at times nonexistent Internet service gave testimony to lawmakers in Augusta, in the hope that new laws will give them access to broadband.
“We all know public broadband investment would expand economic growth, creating jobs in urban as well as the rural regions of our state,” said Jane Bell, whose family owns Tide Mill Farm, an organic dairy in Washington County, since 1765.
All across the nation, for-profit telecommunications companies make decisions about whether or not to ensure the reliability of Internet access in communities. For some, rural areas aren’t “profitable,” so access has become unequal.
“Community broadband is like building water, sewer, or electric utilities infrastructure. It is in the public’s good to help fund,” said Bangor City Councilor Joe Baldacci. “Young people don’t want to live in a place where there is poor broadband. Some companies are not locating in Maine because they can’t get the level of Internet access they need at an affordable price. And some of our existing businesses are finding it hard to compete nationally without reliable broadband.”
Broadband accessibility has been shown to increase home values, reduce business-operating expenses, and create jobs.
“Access to the latest technology is essential to compete in the global economy,” said Baldacci. “We need to close the digital divide and open new opportunities up for job creation.”