ORONO, Maine — Orono and Old Town residents and business owners will soon have access to the Internet that’s 125 times faster than what they have now.
The organizations behind the effort to bring “super-high-speed” network service to the area argue it will spur economic development and the continued growth of a technology hub in the region.
The project to bring a Gigabit Main Street Internet Network to Old Town and Orono will be led by GWI, a Biddeford-based telephone and Internet service provider.
Representatives from Orono and Old Town, the University of Maine, GWI, business owners and other groups involved with the project gathered Wednesday in Barrows Hall at UMaine to learn more about the service.
The jump from Internet carried over legacy networks — or telephone and cable lines that weren’t initially designed to give people access to the Web — to the new fiber optic network will be a dramatic one, according to GWI CEO Fletcher Kittredge.
He likened the conversion from broadband to Gigabit Main Street to the switch from dial-up service to broadband, but to a much higher degree. Dial-up typically runs at 56 kilobits per second, while current standard broadband speeds in the area average around 8,000 kilobits.
The new fiber-optic services from GWI will rocket that to 1 million kilobits, or a gigabit.
Other Maine Internet service providers also are working to boost the speed of their connections. Time Warner Cable announced last week it was increasing Internet speeds for all of its residential customers across Maine and launching new service tiers for customers who had greater speed demands.
Countries such as South Korea, Japan and Sweden are well ahead of the curve in providing communities with gigabit technology, according to experts at Wednesday’s press conference.
That’s where an effort called Gig.U comes in.
Gig.U is a nationwide initiative to bring high-speed fiber-optic Internet to research universities and their surrounding communities. UMaine was among the first institutions in the country to get onboard with the idea, which 36 other schools have signed onto. With Wednesday’s announcement, UMaine takes a leap ahead most of the other Gig.U members.
Blair Levin, executive director of Gig.U, said Wednesday that the idea is to create an “innovation hub” connected to the outside world and the community itself by super-high-speed gigabit networks. He argued that Internet speeds and bandwidth limits have held back the capabilities of many institutions.
“We, as a country, should want to eliminate bandwidth as a constraint to innovation,” Levin said.
Levin said the new service will allow researchers and companies to send immense amounts of data to universities and laboratories across the globe. It gives universities and businesses the ability to transmit everything from entire DNA sequences to extremely high-resolution photographs, Levin said, adding that increasing bandwidth could lead to the creation of unforeseen products and services.
“Eventually, networks like this will be throughout Maine and the rest of the U.S.,” Kittredge said, adding that the services need to start out in small scale to determine whether public demand will warrant expanding them to a broader regional base.
“We will plant the first seed in fertile economic soil,” he said. Kittredge said the Orono and Old Town area, with the University of Maine at the center, is prime real estate for getting the high-speed service off the ground and considering whether it will work in larger markets such as Bangor or rural markets in northern and eastern Maine.
For area businesses and researchers inside and outside the university, having so much more bandwidth available will open up new opportunities with far-reaching consequences, according to Kittredge.
The Orono-based Down East Emergency Medicine Institute uses high-resolution photographs taken from aircraft to search for missing people. In the past, the agency has had to use much slower Internet connections and wait many hours to upload the hundreds or thousands of images brought back from a single search, according to the institute’s director, Richard Bowie.
Because each photograph took about 7 minutes to upload, checking each one for signs of a missing person was a slow, tedious process, Bowie said. Valuable search time was lost while waiting for the next image to finish its upload.
Under the new GWI service, DEEMI searchers will be able to study each image within seconds.
“It will help save lives,” Bowie said.
Dave Edson, CEO of James W. Sewall Co., an Old Town-based firm that provides consulting to clients on forestry and other natural resources, energy and infrastructure, said his company will be able to accomplish much more with the limits of its former bandwidth removed. The company, which was founded in the 1880s, now has clients in nearly 40 states and across the globe.
A speedy, reliable Internet connection is “beyond being critical to business success today,” Edson said. “Where you can save time, you can improve your competitive position.”
GWI’s fiber-optic network will be open to competitors, who can offer their own services to customers in the area, according to Kittredge. Kittredge said GWI needs to partner with competitors to see whether the gigabit network is viable to spread throughout Maine.
Kittredge said the service would be “comparably priced” to current broadband services at around $59.95 per month for a quarter-gigabit capacity, though that price isn’t final. GWI says the network could be ready for its first crop of customers by September.
To see a comparison of the speeds of GWI’s fiber-optic network with other Internet sources, visit networkmaine.net/tmp/meter.swf.
An earlier version of this story has been updated to indicate that GWI is not the only Internet provider in Maine to offer gigabit service. Other providers, including Time Warner, offer dedicated lines to individual businesses. Also, while standard Internet service in the area currently has speeds around 8 megabits per second, Internet service providers do offer packages with higher speeds.