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Slow Internet inspires islanders to take action

Posted April 03, 2015, at 5:39 a.m.
Last modified April 03, 2015, at 7:12 a.m.

ISLESBORO, Maine — As a state, Maine suffers from Internet speeds barely faster than those found in Mongolia. And islands, separated from mainland technology by the ocean, have it harder than most places.

On Islesboro, where Jack Schlottman and his wife, Becky Schnur, live, their connection speed — or lack thereof — is a big problem. Some island households have frustratingly slow Internet connections that make it challenging to do commonplace tasks such as online banking and research for homework. And others, like Schlottman and Schnur, have had a terrible time getting any Internet access at all.

“It’s a big issue over here,” Schlottman, the athletic director at Islesboro Central School, said. “I live on Main Road, completely in the middle [of the island,] and I can’t get any sort of Internet … This is a big deal on the island right now. How do we attract families that want to live here? People can’t do business out of their homes.”

Schlottman, whose wife works as the communications director for the Maine State Hospital Association, found a solution, but it isn’t cheap. He’s using a Verizon Jetpack, which utilizes mobile telecommunications technology to connect Wi-Fi-enabled devices to the Internet.

“The good news is my wife can work out of the house,” he said recently. “The bad news is it’s $450 a month. We’re paying through the nose here.”

A question of survival

Maine’s slow Internet speeds — the state is ranked dead-last in the country — have spurred both lawmakers and municipalities to consider fixes that would hopefully spur economic activity. Politicians in Augusta this session face about 35 bills dealing with broadband expansion, most of which would increase the amount of money spent to expand networks or otherwise add oomph to the ConnectME Authority.

The Authority gives out about $1 million per year in grants for broadband projects in places with only dial-up connections or no connection at all. Such amounts won’t go far, however, when the estimated investment to get fiber-optic cable to every home (that’s on the grid) in Maine is billions of dollars.

Cities and towns in the state, including Bangor, Bar Harbor and Ellsworth, also are trying to figure out if spending public dollars on broadband expansion would yield economic benefits.

But on Islesboro, the implications of having slow or no Internet are much bigger. Islanders say that having a fast, reliable connection is critical to the long-term survival of their small, year-round community.

That’s true, said rare book dealer Craig Olsen, who runs Artisan Books & Bindery on the island.

“We sell online all over the world, and having good access is important to our business,” he said. “We don’t deal with huge data loads — but we certainly depend on the Internet. I couldn’t do my business without the Internet. We couldn’t live here without the Internet.”

A model for other islands?

In a bid to find an island-wide solution, the town formed a broadband committee a few years ago. One idea that has come out of the meetings that has many residents feeling optimistic is a plan for the town to build its own broadband network for the island. At the annual town meeting on May 9, residents will be asked if they are willing to borrow as much as $3 million to make this happen. The $2.5 million to $3 million estimated price to do the work has been figured by Tilson, a Portland-based consulting group.

If residents agree and the plan moves forward, town officials believe it will be the first time in the state that such a small community — year round population 566 at the last census — builds its own broadband system and owns its own fiber-optic cables for the benefit of residents, as opposed to for the benefit of bigger businesses or institutions.

“We believe this is very unique as far as we know in Maine,” Vern Ziegler, the Islesboro town assessor and member of the broadband working group, said.

Shey Conover of the Rockland-based Island Institute said that the way that Islesboro residents have gone about identifying the problem and figuring out a possible solution could be a model for other island communities.

“It’s an example of amazing local leadership,” said Conover, an Islesboro resident herself. “Rural communities on the mainland are paying attention and certainly other island communities are looking at what Islesboro is doing.”

The nonprofit institute works to support Maine’s 15 year-round island communities, of which Islesboro is one of the closest to the mainland.

When asked if the bills working their way through the Legislature might help Islesboro with its quest for broadband, Page Clason, who runs a technology support business on Islesboro and is another member of the local broadband committee, wasn’t optimistic. He’s been communicating with ConnectME Authority officials about the legislation and said any funding that may be made available “would be way down the road and it wouldn’t be a big amount. Everything I’m seeing shake out looks like it’s once again not really going to help us out.”

Last summer, Rockport launched its ultra-fast fiber-optic Internet network, but Islesboro broadband group members pointed out that the midcoast town did so in partnership with the Maine Media College and the Maine Research and Education Network. They said that Islesboro has no similar entities on the island with which to partner.

According to Rick Bates, the Rockport Town Manager, the community has had a lot of interest in what it’s doing, but not a large “immediate response” among new users. But he didn’t sound too worried that the town won’t see a return on the $70,000 or so it cost the community to install a mile and a half of fiber.

“To put it in perspective, one of our select board members pointed out that in that same year we spent about $650,000 putting in 2,000 feet of sewer line,” he said. “It used to be that for economic development communities needed water, sewer and natural gas. In today’s environment, you need water, sewer, connectivity and possibly natural gas.”

A bridge to the world

Clason said the effort on Islesboro started when islanders identified reliable, speedy Internet as a way to maintain a year round community that is “vibrant and strong into the future.”

“For us, it’s a real bridge to the rest of the world,” he said. “Our primary focus is to meet the needs of current residents and hopefully attract some new ones. We feel that this is an important service that needs to be available to everybody. We look at it like electricity. It just needs to be there — you turn on a switch and it’s ready to go. It’s not really an option. It’s something society sees as a requirement.”

If town residents decide to move forward with the pursuit of municipal broadband on Islesboro, the timing is good, Clason said.

“By chance, Central Maine Power has to replace a power cable under the ocean, and we are talking with them about piggybacking [the fiber-optic cable] with that,” he said. “That is good fortune on our part.”

The bond would pay for building the system, including running fiber-optic cable down all town roads, and then the town would enter into a contract with Biddeford-based Internet service provider GWI to operate the system.

Currently, about two thirds of islanders purchase DSL service through FairPoint Communications, with typical download speeds getting up to three megabits per second. In January, the ConnectME Authority set a new broadband speed standard of 10 megabits per second, considering towns with slower speeds to be underserved.

Once the Islesboro system is built, according to the broadband working group’s website, residents could choose from one of three plans:

— $35 per month would pay for standard service, which would be faster and more reliable than DSL. That service would be enough for email, web browsing and watching streaming video.

— $75 per month for a premium plan would offer uploading speeds that are about 500 times faster than what is currently available, and would make it possible for islanders to do video conferencing and high-definition video streaming.

— $125 per month would provide uploading speeds that are 1,000 times faster than what’s currently available and be “as good as any big city gigabit service in the U.S. and less expensive than most.”

All island property owners, however, also would pay for the bond with additional taxes — $164.25 per year for 20 years on a house assessed at $300,000, according to the broadband working group. These costs are concerning to some residents, according to Schlottman.

“Older people on fixed incomes are worried,” he said.

According to the island working group’s report, if roughly half of the 300 residences and businesses on the island agree to purchase the premium Internet package, the project will begin. If there is insufficient commitment, the bond will not be sold and the system will not be built.

Josh Conover, Shey Conover’s husband and a lobsterman who also owns the Islesboro Marina, said his business would benefit from better Internet access. He uses the utility to communicate with customers, and also would love to be able to stream movies online with his family when he’s not at work.

“I’m not in favor of spending more money,” he said. “But if that’s the only way you could get faster Internet [it would be worth it].”

Maggy Willcox, the publisher of the Islesboro Island News, said she has not heard from anyone who is opposed to the plan to bring broadband to the island.

“Island living is very precarious at best,” she said. “As we watch the population dwindle, it behooves us to think about what’s needed. Anybody in any job would be dead in the water without Internet. I really look at this as an investment in the future.”

 

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