June 25, 2018
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Back plan to offer broadband access to rural Mainers

By Tim McAfee, Special to the BDN

As a leading Internet service provider in northern and eastern Maine, the primary technical challenge we face at Pioneer Broadband comes down to simple math. Each year, our business grows by 20 percent, but the demand for data transmission on our network grows by 150 percent.

Anyone familiar with the explosion of YouTube and other video services on the Internet knows that consumer demand for ever-faster connections to the Web has grown dramatically. With that desire for richer content comes a desire for true broadband access to the Internet, not just in population centers, but anywhere people live and work.

So far, we’ve been able to keep up. Today our company provides fast, reliable Internet service to thousands of subscribers stretching east to Lubec and north to the far reaches of Aroostook County. But each year the job gets tougher as we seek ways to keep our customers tethered to the global economy.

That’s why Pioneer supports the Three Ring Binder, a proposal to create a broadband superhighway through western, northern and Down East Maine.

The federal government is now weighing a grant that would cover $26 million of the $32.5 million cost of building the Three Ring Binder. This funding for rural broadband is part of the federal stimulus package. This particular application is an important component in any strategy to bring faster and more affordable Internet service to rural Maine.

Already, two state review panels and Gov. John Baldacci have endorsed the Three Ring Binder as critical to efforts to bring faster and less-expensive Internet service to all of Maine.

GWI, the Biddeford phone and Internet service provider, is the primary sponsor of the Three Ring Binder. But GWI will not own or run this “dark fiber” network.

Instead, an independent company, Maine Fiber LLC, will operate the Three Ring Binder. It will do so under open-access rules that will allow companies such as Pioneer Broadband, FairPoint, GWI and others to share this affordable connection to the Internet.

The result will be more options for consumers and businesses seeking broadband service in rural Maine.

In areas relatively close to the Three Ring Binder, carriers will be able to string fiber-optic cable from the main network to customers’ homes and businesses. For more remote communities, a wireless connection will provide a link to the global economy.

In either case, the critical component is a loop of high-capacity fiber that will serve as the backbone for data transmission in rural Maine.

At Pioneer, we strive constantly to provide our customers with reliable service, working hard to keep up with that 150 percent annual growth in demand. For instance, we’re adding Internet connections through New Brunswick to diversify our access points. And if the Three Ring Binder is funded and built, this connection to data transmission lines in Canada could provide additional redundancy — and therefore better reliability — for broadband users throughout the state of Maine.

To some, the idea of a shared and subsidized resource like the Three Ring Binder might seem like unnecessary interference with the private marketplace. And it’s true that it is technically feasible to build a fiber-optic connection to just about anywhere.

But what’s technically feasible and practical are two different things. Given the current state of the telecommunications network in Maine, it’s simply unrealistic to expect a robust market for broadband service to develop in many rural areas anytime soon.

In most of our local markets we don’t compete with other broadband providers. Our “competition” is all the other things in household or business budgets that can make a broadband connection unaffordable if it costs too much.

The key to our growth (and broadband penetration in rural Maine), is in overcoming technical hurdles in a way that keeps the service reasonably priced.

The open-access solution embodied by the Three Ring Binder meets that test. It is a project deserving of federal funding, and our representatives in Washington should do all they can to see that this grant application is approved.

Tim McAfee is chief technology officer for Pioneer Broadband, an Internet Service Provider based in Houlton.

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