ORONO, Maine — Think for a moment about Interstate 95. The highway stretches from the Maine-New Hampshire border to Aroostook County in (more or less) a straight line. It facilitates the passage of goods, services and people in an efficient manner. It connects communities that never before were connected.
Most Mainers probably take the interstate for granted, but imagine if it never existed. The state would be significantly disadvantaged compared with others states that have highway infrastructure.
Now apply that same concept to another type of highway — the information highway. The longer Maine (especially its most rural parts) goes without widespread, high-speed Internet infrastructure, the further behind the state falls.
U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke announced Thursday that a Maine-based public-private consortium will receive $25.4 million in federal stimulus money to install 1,100 miles of fiber-optic Internet cable in rural Maine.
In short, he said, the award helps put Maine back in the game.
“These critical investments will fix an imbalance that has persisted for far too long,” Locke said at the University of Maine’s Wells Conference Center. “There are too many communities that are stuck without the tools to compete in a global economy.”
Thursday’s event in Orono came on the heels of Vice President Joe Biden’s announcement that the first round of $7.2 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding for broadband projects has begun. The Maine grant to the consortium of private companies such as GWI and public entities such as the University of Maine System was one of 18 awards in 17 states rolled out Thursday that will expand broadband to rural areas that sorely need it.
Locke compared the Obama administration’s investment in broadband infrastructure to the country’s investments in interstate highways during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. Over many years, interstate highways have streamlined travel and commerce and have created countless private sector investments. Similarly, the goal of the broadband grants is to use public funding to stimulate private investments over the long term.
So how will that work here in Maine?
Bruce Segee, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UMaine who helped develop what has been called the Three Ring Binder proposal, explained the process.
“Maine’s problem is not getting high-speed Internet service to small businesses and homes but in connecting broadband infrastructure from community to community,” Segee said.
Broadband Internet service travels along fiber-optic cables that are attached to utility poles. Internet service providers have been willing to invest in connecting customers to the fiber-optic network, but no private entity has the capital to invest in building the network that links communities, or what is known as the middle mile.
Fletcher Kittredge, CEO of GWI, a Biddeford-based Internet provider and one of the main stakeholders in the Three Ring Binder project, said the government investment allows companies like his to expand their service. The $25.4 million grant will be matched initially by more than $7 million in private sector investments by GWI and others. So far, 10 Maine companies have indicated that they plan to lease fiber-optic network space.
U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree joined Locke at Thursday’s announcement.
“While high-speed Internet is a reality to Maine here, it is still out of reach to so many others,” Michaud said. “This levels the playing field.”
Added Pingree: “This provides both immediate jobs and a long-term investment in the state’s economy.”
It was exactly one year ago today that Segee, University of Maine System information technology guru Jeff Letourneau and others developed the idea. Letourneau said three separate projects initially were proposed and eventually they were merged into the Three Ring Binder, which will create fiber-optic network loops in west-ern Maine, northern Maine and Down East. The loops will pass through more than 100 Maine communities with more than 110,000 homes.
Fiber-optic cable allows large quantities of data to move quickly from place to place. In an increasingly electronic world, small businesses that don’t have access to high-speed Internet suffer. The demand for broadband service in rural Maine has been growing rapidly for years, but the infrastructure has lagged behind.
In his announcement, Locke said the broadband network expansion in Maine would allow universities and colleges to connect to one another and the world. It would allow hospitals such as Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor to engage more in telemedicine, connecting rural facilities to those with more resources. It would facilitate videoconferencing between jails and courthouses and save money on travel.
The benefits are numerous, Locke said, but there may be additional advantages to the expanded broadband network that haven’t been imagined.
The first step in creating the fiber-optic network is installing approximately 36,000 poles and then adding the cable. That’s where the first surge of job creation comes in.
Once it’s built, the Three Ring Binder will be privately owned and operated by Maine Fiber Co., which then will offer access to its fiber-optic network on an equal basis to all Internet and telecommunication providers interested in serving rural Maine. If successful, those companies who buy in will grow and create additional jobs.
Decades from now, broadband infrastructure may be taken for granted in the same way interstate highways are today.