Merging Broadband

Posted Aug. 05, 2009, at 6:18 p.m.

The last thing Maine — especially its rural areas which lag in broadband access — can afford is a battle over who will build and run an expanded system.

But that is exactly what is shaping up as FairPoint Communications and a consortium including the University of Maine System and GWI, a communications company headquartered in Biddeford, have developed competing plans for millions of dollars in federal stimulus money aimed at expanding broadband’s reach.

Rep. Chris Rector, a member of the state’s Broadband Strategy Council, put it best. “I don’t want to see us building parallel turnpikes,” the Thomaston Republican said earlier this week.

He’s right to stress cooperation because submitting competing proposals to the federal government for a piece of the $7 billion stimulus pie allocated for broadband could doom both plans to failure.

To best move this work forward, state officials must get FairPoint and the University of Maine System group to work together to craft a proposal that meets the needs of the state’s residents as well as public and private institutions that require a lot of broadband capacity.

Meanwhile, a broadband expansion in neighboring New Brunswick is ahead of schedule. The province negotiated a $60 million deal with a private company to get broadband to the province’s most remote areas. The province invested $13 million to ensure 100 percent coverage within a year. At the same time, Bell Alliant plans to spend $60 million to bring fiber optic Internet service to homes in the Fredericton and Saint John areas.

There are valid reasons that two systems developed in Maine, but they can’t continue to operate separately. For years, the University of Maine System and companies such as The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor and the James W. Sewall Co. in Old Town, which transmit vast quantities of data over the Internet, asked Verizon for more broadband capacity. When it wasn’t forthcoming, these entities teamed up and asked the Legislature for help. Lawmakers allocated $3 million for a network linking these entities. To help pay for the system, additional customers, such as hospitals, were sought.

Now, the university system and GWI propose to expand the network to provide broadband access to rural parts of the state. It is seeking $26 million in federal funds.

When FairPoint took over the state’s telephone network from Verizon, it committed to expanding the reach of broadband, something it is currently doing. It now seeks $20 million from the federal recovery act funds for this work.

FairPoint is right that allowing the university system to take away some of its largest customers will undermine its efforts to bring broadband to rural areas. At the same time, it is commendable that the university stepped in to build a system to ensure that entities like Jackson Lab and the Sewall Co. could operate and grow in Maine.

At this point, however, this work must be merged. The Broadband Strategy Council would be wise to find a way to make that happen.

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