BANGOR, Maine — Access and capacity.
That’s the essence of the protracted battle between FairPoint Communications and Maine Fiber Co. over the Three Ring Binder project that would bring broadband infrastructure to 1,100 miles of rural Maine, according to Maine Fiber’s CEO.
FairPoint, which quietly has been expanding its broadband footprint since it took over Maine operations from Verizon Communications in early 2008, claims that the mostly federally funded Three Ring Binder network duplicates what FairPoint is building.
Dwight Allison of Maine Fiber, the newly formed company that will oversee construction, maintenance and leasing of the Three Ring Binder’s fiber-optic network, agreed that there is some overlap with FairPoint’s network. Other factors carry more weight, though, he contended.
Consider capacity. Although FairPoint has not released information about the capacity of its fiber-optic lines, Allison estimated that the network of “dark fiber” associated with his project would offer 10 times more space than what FairPoint offers.
“Imagine what could happen when you open capacity,” Allison said during a meeting Thursday at the Bangor Daily News.
Jeffrey Nevins, a Maine spokesman for FairPoint, said his company’s network was designed to accommodate customers with high-capacity needs.
“We feel we have more than enough capacity,” he said. “[The Three Ring Binder] would bring more, obviously.”
Now consider access. FairPoint — by its own admission — has not expressed any interest in offering any of its dark fiber to other companies.
“We do not sell our dark fiber; we want our customers on our network,” said Nevins.
Allison said that amounts to a monopoly for FairPoint, whereas the Three Ring Binder would be offered on an open access model to any telecommunications company that wants to use it. Allison offered the bold prediction that FairPoint would be Maine Fiber’s biggest customer in five years, but Nevins balked at that assessment.
“It’s probably unlikely that we would build off Maine Fiber’s network,” he said.
The Three Ring Binder network is still many months away from being built and Maine Fiber has only until December 2012 to get the project up and running. Allison said FairPoint’s efforts to stall the project could result in the evaporation of $25.4 million in federal stimulus money and about $7 million that has been invested privately.
There also are competing legislative bills that deal with the broadband issue and, depending on the result of each, the battle could drag along further.
LD 1697 would prohibit the state and divisions of the state from providing telecommunications services to clients outside the government sector. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Stacey Fitts, a Pittsfield Republican, and FairPoint representatives believe that the Three Ring Binder will enable its partners to offer services at a lower price because of the federal subsidy.
Rep. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, has introduced LD 1778 on behalf of Maine Fiber, which would establish a new state entity, “dark fiber provider,” that would streamline Maine Fiber’s efforts to begin work on the Three Ring Binder.
Allison said construction of the broadband network has two phases. The first and most time-intensive phase involves making the utility poles ready. The Three Ring Binder will run on 36,000 poles across Maine. Roughly half of the poles are owned by FairPoint, which can’t deny access but can be a pain in the neck, Allison said.
“FairPoint can kill the project without even killing the project,” he said.
Recently, representatives from Maine Fiber and FairPoint have had discussions that both Allison and Nevins called productive. Each side is looking for middle ground, but Nevins said it’s unclear what that middle ground would look like.
Meanwhile, Allison has been traveling the state gathering more support for the Three Ring Binder. Later in the day on Thursday, he traveled to Machias to participate in a symposium there.