Marion Township households prepare to ring in the new year with broadband access

Posted Dec. 29, 2011, at 3:28 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 29, 2011, at 7:45 p.m.

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MARION TOWNSHIP, Maine — While all of Maine will soon be ringing in a new year, some residents of Washington County’s remote Marion Township — better late than never — will soon be ringing in the 21st century.

While high-speed Internet access is as ubiquitous as television to most Mainers, broadband connections have yet to come to the estimated 40 households located in this rural township northeast of Machias.

Most Mainers are doing business, downloading movies and cultivating a cultural obsession with social media as travelers on a global information superhighway. Meanwhile, Marion Township residents remain relegated to the equivalent of a 15-mile-per-hour, gravel frontage road: long-antiquated dial-up Internet access that has proven as unreliable as the township’s circa 1956 telephone lines.

Through a partnership involving Axiom Technologies of Machias, Washington County’s Sunrise County Economic Council and Portland-based Coast of Maine Organic Products, that situation is about to change. A 160-foot tower that will offer broadband capability to many of those who live within a 10-mile radius is now being erected within Coast of Maine’s 26-acre compost and soil manufacturing facility located near the intersection of highways 191 and 86.

Strong, gusty winds precluded completion of the $30,000 project on Thursday as hoped, but those involved expect the service to be up and running soon. Jeff Moore, who lives a few miles down the road from the tower site, said Thursday he can’t wait.

“I had dial-up once, for about a day, and I told them to take it out,” said Moore, who is the plant manager at Coast of Maine’s composting operation. “It would take 20 minutes to download a photograph, line by line, and then, within a few minutes, it would kick me off. Now I don’t have any Internet access at all. And the phone lines we have are so old that you hear a crackling noise if you’re on the phone and it’s raining.”

Coast of Maine is covering half the cost of the project. The other half is being paid for through a grant being administered by the Economic Council. Axiom is providing the technical expertise to make the magic happen and will connect households that opt to take advantage of the new technology, given sufficient signal strength.

“Ours is a good location, and we are able to offset half the costs,” said Cameron Bonsey, Coast of Maine’s marketing director. “We’ve always had Internet access problems in Marion, which is why we do all of our communications out of Portland. If you don’t have high-speed Internet access today, you’re being left behind. For businesses, it’s essential, even for our production facility here. We’ll soon have the opportunity to do some of our communications from up here, which could mean more jobs.”

The composting operation now creates as many as eight year-round jobs and as many as 14 additional seasonal jobs between March and August. Those workers mix and package a variety of organic fertilizers and compost-based soils using recipes that blend ingredients as varied as salmon and blueberry compost, composted cow and chicken manure, composted shells that are byproducts of lobster and mussel processing and kelp, sawdust, peat and aged bark.

“Access to reliable phone and Internet service has been the most inhibitive issue we’ve had to deal with over the years,” said Coast of Maine President Carlos Quijano. “The Marion facility is over 60 miles beyond the nearest copper wire relay station, and the phone service is very poor. It has limited our ability to do things in Marion, which is why we have made a significant investment in this. If you have reliable Internet service, you can use voice-over-Internet protocols that don’t require telephone lines.

“Having reliable Internet service will give us a lot of flexibility,” Quijano said. “Things we now do in Portland, like dispatch functions, would more logically be done up there. But once or twice a week we lose our phone lines and, without a reliable connection, we just can’t take that chance.”

Bonsey said Coast of Maine is happy to help Marion Township residents within line-of-sight range of the tower escape from the communications hinterlands they call home.

“Hopefully they can acquire access as economically as possible, and we’re glad to help make that possible,” he said. “Our company feels it’s important to give back to the community, which is why we’re very much involved in donating our soils and other products to school gardening programs.”

Kim Emerson, Axiom’s general manager, said the company now has about 80 access points throughout Washington County, some mounted on towers, others on buildings. Collectively, they provide high-speed Internet access to about 800 households and businesses. Once the Coast of Maine tower is operational, those who want to buy the service at $39.95 a month can have it within a few days, assuming there is sufficient signal strength at their locations.

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