Experts: New fiber network makes for healthy economy

Scott Cornforth, a foreman with NextGen, installs a guy wire on a utility pole while his crew lashes fiber optic cable on a support strand wire along River Road in Bucksport on Thursday, July 28, 2011. The work is part of the Three Ring Binder project that will make high-speed Internet available in rural areas.  The project is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2012.
Scott Cornforth, a foreman with NextGen, installs a guy wire on a utility pole while his crew lashes fiber optic cable on a support strand wire along River Road in Bucksport on Thursday, July 28, 2011. The work is part of the Three Ring Binder project that will make high-speed Internet available in rural areas. The project is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2012.
Posted July 29, 2011, at 5:32 p.m.
Last modified July 31, 2011, at 6:47 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Officials held a press conference at the Loring Commerce Centre in northern Aroostook County earlier this month to celebrate the expansion of a high-speed fiber optics network through the old airbase as part of the Three Ring Binder project.

The finger-width cable will run through the heart of the complex, with 144 individual fiber optic strands — each about the thickness of a hair — vastly expanding the data transmission available to companies there.

Or to companies that now want to be there.

Carl Flora, president and CEO of the Loring Redevelopment Authority, said he was contacted by a cloud computing company executive. The executive had been aware of Loring and the facilities there for some time, Flora said, but when he learned the Three Ring Binder fiber was coming through the complex, his interest jumped up a notch or two.

“He wants to come visit,” said Flora. “Absolutely, that made the difference.”

That’s a story that project officials and telecom industry experts hope will be repeated over and over again as a veritable highway system of fiber optics snakes into rural Maine.

The brainchild of Great Works Internet’s Fletcher Kittredge and Jeff Letourneau of the University of Maine, the Three Ring Binder project was awarded $25.4 million in Recovery Act money from the U.S. Department of Commerce in 2009, with another $7 million in private investment.

The project will run 1,100 miles of high-capacity fiber throughout rural Maine, making broadband access more available to 110,000 households and 600 institutions such as health care and higher education facilities in 200 towns.

Again, like a highway system, the “middle mile” fiber runs through communities around the state, primarily in southwestern, northern, coastal and Down East Maine. The “last mile” of telecommunication connectivity in those towns is being provided by Internet service providers; at this point, mostly smaller, local firms, but with some interest expressed by larger telcos, as well. Picture the secondary roads and streets that run off Route 1 through various towns — those would be the “last mile” connectors to the main “middle mile” fiber system.

A primary goal is to increase the economic opportunities for rural areas, embracing the concept that with a robust data line, many companies and many workers can really be physically anywhere in the world in the global economy. Building the fiber infrastructure is leveraging two technology trends, said Kittredge — the growth of mobile tech and the expansion of a faster, more reliable network that allows cloud computing.

“The great issue the Maine economy always struggles with is distances – those things have a way of incredibly shrinking distances,” said Kittredge.

Expansion of high-bandwidth telecom into the state’s rural areas would likely never be cost-effective or feasible in the private market — there are too many miles and too few potential customers. But by subsidizing the backbone construction with federal funds, telecoms like Axiom Technologies of Machias or Pioneer Broadband of Houlton are able to invest in completing that last mile, bringing high-speed Internet connections to areas for the same sorts of prices you’d see in urban areas.

“It won’t matter where you live, you’ll be able to get the same rates whether you live in Portland or you live in Meddybemps,” said Susan Corbett, CEO of Axiom. “What this does is make it a very even playing field.”

Kittredge said the original federal grant was made to his company, Great Works Internet. GWI transferred the fund to a new company, Maine Fiber Co., whose reason for existence is the management of the Three Ring Binder. Maine Fiber is run by Dwight L. Allison III, who, along with Robert C.S. “Bobby” Monks of Portland, led the team of investors that put $7 million into the project.

Companies like Axiom, Great Works, Pioneer and others will lease fiber from Maine Fiber Co. No company can lease more than 20 percent of the fiber in a market, and the price available to one company must be available to all companies — both moves to ensure competition in the marketplace.

“The whole point of it was to make it available, and make the costs low. If you get lots of competition, it squeezes inefficiencies out of the system,” said Kittredge.

The money paid to Maine Fiber will service a return on the private investment, cover ongoing maintenance, taxes and pay for “pole attachment fees,” which are basically monthly rentals for space on utility poles.

And it’s not just the smaller, local companies that are interested in taking advantage of the Three Ring fiber.

“We look forward to the progress of the Three Ring Binder to extend our already extensive fiber-optic network throughout the state of Maine,” said Paul Schonewolf, Time Warner Cable’s area vice president of operations for New England. “We also continue to grow our own network and invest in Maine’s digital infrastructure.”

Maine Fiber has contracted with Portland-based Tilson Technology LLC to manage the build-out of the network. At this point, much of the work has involved working through various federal and state agencies for approvals, triggered because of the commerce grant. Work on utility poles has started, but it’s mainly what’s called “make ready” work. That’s moving existing cables on poles and getting the proper permissions and leases set up.

Tilson President Josh Broder noted that any given pole may be jointly owned by several power companies, with a municipal fire alarm on it, a streetlight owned by a business, a city stoplight, as well as cables for TV, Internet, phone and more. All those parties are involved in the permissions to move things around on the pole, getting it ready for the relatively thin fiber optic line to be put in. And in some areas, there are no poles, so Maine Fiber will be installing its own.

So far, there is 150 miles of fiber up, with much of it in the southern Aroostook area of Hodgdon, Danforth, Amity and Orient. By the end of this year, there will be about 500 miles of fiber up. The project will be done by the end of next year with 1,100 miles of fiber, said Broder.

The fiber being laid will have either 144 or 288 individual optic strands, each being able to carry “an enormous amount of data,” Broder said.

As the build-out continues, private companies are leasing space and indicating future interest, Broder said.

“We feel strongly that private industry and the market has a strong role to play here,” said Broder. “This subsidy from the federal government gives companies the opportunity to participate and compete.”

Internet service providers are already seeing interest by existing companies that want to expand their data networks, from car dealerships to legal offices, real estate firms to a mapping company.

“I can tell you it’s going to increase attractiveness to developers — having the prospective capacity that’s desired by some of these companies,” said Tim McAfee, president of Pioneer Broadband.

McAfee said he’s seeing interest from companies that have multiple locations and want to share data easily.

Kittredge said the vast increase in data connectivity should combine with other advantages of rural Maine. Maine’s power is the cheapest in New England, he noted, and there are some rural areas of the state where power is cheap relative to the rest of Maine.

“If you had facility you wanted in the Northeast that used a lot of power, and data communications was vital — rural Maine’s not a bad place to be,” said Kittredge.

There’s also a strong, skilled blue-collar work force that could be retrained to maintain data centers for cloud computing.

“Modern technology companies actually need more of these people than most people realize,” he said.

Kittredge said he saw this expansion improving the ability of people like investment bankers, consultants and others to live and work out of their homes in Maine — also increasing property taxes, income taxes and potential investment in the state.

“They don’t need to be going into the office in Manhattan five days a week — they can put in their hours in their place in coastal Maine, maybe they fly to New York City four, five times a month, but they can have the lifestyle they want up here, living in a place you can’t find in Boston or New York or whatever,” said Kittredge.

CORRECTION:

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Susan Corbett, CEO of Axiom, as Susan Porter.

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