Aroostook County leaders laud new Internet expansion project

Posted July 18, 2011, at 6:35 p.m.

LIMESTONE, Maine — Approximately 30 people were in Limestone on Monday to help a Portland-based company mark the expansion of a high-speed Internet network that officials said will lure new economic development opportunities and jobs to Aroostook County.

The brief ceremony at the Loring Commerce Centre allowed Maine Fiber Co. to officially cut the ribbon on its Three Ring Binder project.

The Portland-based company was formed to oversee the construction, maintenance and leasing of a 1,100-mile, high-capacity fiber-optic network in the state of Maine. The project was awarded $25.4 million in stimulus money from the U.S. Department of Commerce in 2009. Another $7 million in private funding also has been contributed.

The Three Ring Binder project will make broadband access more readily available to 110,000 households and 600 community anchor institutions, such as health care and higher education facilities, across the state. The proposal was dubbed the Three Ring Binder because it features three “rings” of fiber strung through western, northern and Down East Maine.

Officials from Maine Fiber were joined at the event by local business and economic development leaders, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and representatives from U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins’ offices. Maine Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner George Gervais and a number of state legislators also were on hand.

Tilson Fiber Technology is managing the building of the network on behalf of Maine Fiber.

Joshua Broder, president of Tilson Fiber, announced Monday that more than 500 miles of the statewide network, including 91 miles in Aroostook County, would be completed by the end of this year. The full project, including 256 miles through The County, should be completed by the end of 2012.

Broder said the network idea was conceived by Jeff Letourneau of the University of Maine; Fletcher Kittredge of Great Works Internet, or GWI, a Biddeford-based company that provides phone and Internet service in northern New England; and a number of other public and private stakeholders.

Carl Flora, president and CEO of Loring Development Authority in Limestone, said the Three Ring Binder will bring jobs and business growth to The County.

“Open access to this amount of reliable, path-diverse high-speed Internet infrastructure has already had a noticeable impact here at Loring,” he said Monday. “This new infrastructure project has opened up a whole bunch of new opportunities for economic growth in Limestone and rural Maine.”

Michaud, who spoke at the ceremony, said more than 100 rural Maine communities would receive high-speed broadband as a result of the project.

“This will go a long way toward bridging the digital divide that currently exists in our state,” he said. “Not only do high-tech businesses stand to benefit, but the Three Ring Binder project will create a high-speed network between the University of Maine System campuses, helping to better train Maine’s students for the jobs of tomorrow.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said in a written statement that, once completed, the project will provide the state with a competitive advantage.

“The expansion of the Three Ring Binder Project into northern Maine will expand opportunities for businesses by offering an open access fiber optic network that extends to under- and unserved areas of rural Maine,” said Collins. “The project will in turn expand our economy, promote job growth, and enhance health care opportunities.”

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe also lauded the public-private partnerships that were forged to make the expansion possible.

“Today’s groundbreaking of the Three Ring Binder project represents the beginning of a new era in telecommunications in Maine and a major step in bringing wireless broadband access to our rural neighbors,” Snowe said in a statement. “With more than 276 million wireless subscribers across our nation, broadband access is vital to economic competitiveness, innovation, and our day to day lives.”

Gervais, the Department of Economic and Community Development commissioner, told the audience that the availability of such a network would allow people anywhere in the state to “compete with anyone, anywhere in the world.”

State Rep. Ken Theriault of Madawaska also was looking forward to the completion of the project.

“The fact that high-capacity fiber-optic cable is going to come through many of the northernmost communities and neighborhoods in Maine is going to create new opportunities for our families, students and small business,” he said.

The genesis for the Three Ring Binder was in 2009, when a coalition of Maine state officials and representatives of the University of Maine System and Maine telecommunications companies got together to discuss how Maine might leverage federal stimulus money to enhance broadband access.

The group found that the lack of a middle-mile network of high-capacity fiber-optic cable was a major obstacle to improving data transmission in many areas of the state. During those discussions, GWI stepped forward to be the lead sponsor of a grant proposal to fund construction of such a network.

Work on the Three Ring Binder began last year as crews made the utility poles ready. Officials with Maine Fiber said Monday that crews already have more than 100 miles of fiber in the air, five service providers and institutional users signed up, and 50 percent of the make-ready construction on existing utility poles completed statewide.

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