DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — When the Three Ring Binder project designed to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas was completed in 2012, many thought it would be up and running in most locations by now. But it isn’t — at least not in Piscataquis County.
The $26 million project included 1,100 miles of fiber to create a high-speed “backbone” to rural areas, Rep. Norman Higgins, R-Dover-Foxcroft, said. “You can run a gigabit on it, but we haven’t utilized it because it’s an open-access system. It’s like laying a water line and not running any water through it,” Higgins told the Observer.
Basically, the lines built by Maine Fiber Company aren’t being used because the smaller firms that supporters thought would jump at the chance to provide high-speed Internet at competitive rates haven’t materialized.
The one exception is the Riverfront Redevelopment Project in Dover-Foxcroft, which will include a combination of commercial and residential rentals. “One line runs from Dexter to Dover-Foxcroft, up Route 11 through Milo and Brownville to Millinocket,” Higgins said. “Another one comes up from (the University of) Maine to the eastern part of the county.”
There’s also a tax that was established for anyone using the Three Ring Binder service, Higgins said, “somewhere in the 15 to 16 percent range. It creates a disincentive for people who want to do it, and that hasn’t been collected very much.”
According to a January 2014 report by the Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Working Group, however, the tax is even higher.
Maine Fiber Company charges a base rate of $10 to $16 per strand mile per month for most of its territory. “With these rates, the broadband sustainability tax is at an effective rate of between 19 and 30 percent. The largest payer of the tax at the present time is the University of Maine, which pays more than $100,000 per year,” according to the report. “It stands to reason that a 20 to 30 percent tax on broadband usage in rural Maine on the Three Ring Binder discourages organizations from leasing dark fiber from the service.”
Higgins has drafted two bills he hopes will jump-start the use of high-speed fiber in the county. One would eliminate the broadband sustainability fee or tax, and the other would appropriate up to $12 million to allow up to 50 public-private Internet services, 25 of which must be in “economically challenged communities.”
All grants would require a cash match, Higgins said. “A community can apply for a planning grant of $20,000. But they have to match it with $5,000 cash — 25 percent of the grant,” he said. “If you become a certified community, you’ll be eligible to apply for funding up to $200,000 — again, with a 25 percent match. Once the system is installed, an RFP (request for proposal) goes out for a service provider.”
Higgins acknowledged that asking for $12 million in new funds during a tight budget year is a challenge but said informal discussions with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been positive.
“It will put us at the top of the class nationally and give us an opportunity to use it as a major marketing tool for those who want to relocate and run a business in rural Maine,” Higgins said. “We can’t change our climate or our demographics, but we can change our access to the Internet.”
Higgins said he doesn’t see any difference between municipal Internet services or a water or sewer utility. “There isn’t anything to preclude the town leasing it out to someone else to maintain and manage it,” he said. “ Rockport is already doing it, and Old Town, Sanford, Portland, Ellsworth and other towns are beginning to look at it.”
Higgins added he doesn’t feel bonds “are a very attractive way to raise money in Maine. I hope this bill will serve as a centerpiece for a conversation. When I talk to different legislators, they all say we need to do something.”
Higgins, a first-term Republican lawmaker, noted that 10 out of 13 members of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee are first-timers. “We’ll be working with many other groups to craft the language of the bill,” he said. “I’m optimistic that something will come out of it.”