May 23, 2018
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2 rural towns pioneer new route to faster internet

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Scott Cornforth, a foreman with NextGen, installs a guy wire on a utility pole as part of the installation of the statewide middle-mile fiber-optic network called the Three Ring Binder, in 2012. A fiber-to-the-home network designed by Pioneer Broadband to serve Calais and Baileyville will connect to the Three Ring Binder, according to Don Flewelling, of Pioneer.
By Darren Fishell, BDN Staff
Updated:

The communities of Calais and Baileyville are putting their own money into getting faster internet speeds than most of the state. It will be a dramatic turnaround, allowing the average user to download a 45-minute high-definition television show in roughly one-and-a-half minutes.

They are following the lead of other Maine cities and towns, but one thing’s different in Calais and Baileyville, which last year came together to form the nonprofit Downeast Broadband Utility.

When the utility starts negotiating to put 87 miles of fiber-optic cable on area utility poles, they’ll have unprecedented leverage, thanks to new rules that give them a right to attach to those poles.

It’s a big deal for a small network. For Downeast Broadband, attaching their cables to utility poles is the biggest cost of the roughly $2.5 million project. The rules help make those costs and project timelines more predictable, and that stands to give rural parts of the state clearer paths to funding their own networks.

“Pole attachments, as wonky as they are, were a major regulatory hurdle for small [internet service providers] and communities to figure out and deal with,” said Peggy Schaffer, co-chair of the Maine Broadband Coalition. “It became an unpredictable, expensive process to attach to poles.”

Most of the poles in Maine are owned by electric utilities or Consolidated Communications, which acquired FairPoint Communications last year. The company owns most of the poles in Calais and Baileyville, and the others are owned by Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative.

In the case of Consolidated, which provides its own broadband and data services, attachment requests from other networks can amount to competition.

As Calais and Baileyville are the first to operate under the rules that give them a leg up in dealing with pole owners such as Consolidated, they have the attention of people who see a potential economic lifeline for fledgling communities where it’s harder for private internet providers to make a profit.

From 2010 to 2016, populations in both towns declined by roughly 5 percent, according to census estimates.

“We hope that having this infrastructure will make us more attractive to telecommuters, seasonal residents, businesses that are looking to expand or relocate,” said Julie Jordan, director of the Downeast Broadband Utility.

Fiber-optic cables are designed to transmit data and can send it faster than copper wire networks originally built to transmit telephone signals and cable television.

The project aims to make direct fiber connections to 97 percent of area homes and businesses, helping address repeated concerns from the county’s single largest employer, Woodland Pulp and St. Croix Tissue. Dan Sullivan, the mill’s information technology manager, has made regular pleas in Augusta for new state investment in high-speed internet connections.

Sullivan told lawmakers last year that faster internet speeds in the community were critical to the mill’s bottom line and, therefore, its more than 400 employees. But he criticized public investment in upgrades using “outdated technology,” pointing to a DSL line built near his home in Cooper using federal broadband funds.

“[The DSL] project is a good example of using public dollars to build networks that are slow, outdated and unable to handle present day internet needs, let alone future ones,” he wrote.

Jordan said the utility expects its network to serve customers for about 30 years, which was part of justifying the millions both towns will borrow to build it.

Once the project starts construction, it will take about two years to complete, but Jordan said the network could light up different sections in phases, providing service sooner for some customers. Jordan expects construction to begin this year.

A long time coming

Getting access to utility poles wasn’t impossible before for municipal broadband networks, but it was more difficult. In Islesboro, leaders of a four-year effort to build their own municipal fiber network said they were forced to accept whatever terms a pole owner offered.

Still seeing it worth the cost, they accepted and this month are firing up a $3.8 million fiber-optic network that’s delivering some of the top speeds in the country.

Roger Heinen, a member of the committee that led the Islesboro effort, said that kind of local push will be required to get broadband to some of the state’s most remote corners.

“This was always about a realization that the incumbent cable and phone companies can’t invest in a place like Islesboro,” Heinen said.

Consolidated, the state’s largest incumbent internet service provider, had sought to limit the reach of the new pole attachment rules, arguing unsuccessfully that regulators should step in only to resolve disputes, not to make rules for every application.

Regulators sided with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and groups such as the Islesboro broadband committee, which told regulators that access to funds and “an abundance of obstacles for attaching to poles” were among the top hurdles to expanding broadband “to all corners of Maine.”

The rules were a long time coming, Heinen said.

Maine regulators create rules governing utility pole attachment, but most states defer to federal rules. Before the new rules took effect in January, Maine last changed its pole attachment rules in 1993, the same year that internet provider AOL began mailing CDs to homes.

The new rules, which bring Maine in line with much of the country, require pole owners to respond to requests from municipal utility districts who want to string up their own fiber, denying them only in specific circumstances, such as when there are safety concerns. Eventually, the rules will include specific guidelines about how pole owners should set rates.

Previously, pole owners only had to respond to municipalities seeking to put up new emergency communications lines or streetlights.

With the new broadband rules, municipalities can’t go it alone, however. They need private companies as partners to actually operate the network, or to “light” the fiber. The Downeast Broadband Utility eventually will solicit bids for a company to operate the network.

With the Downeast utility leading the way, Schaffer said the new rules are promising.

“The Downeast Utility District was the first one to test that process out. And it worked,” she said. “It was simple and quick.”

It still requires communities to make significant investments in areas too sparsely populated for private internet service providers to justify costly upgrades in their own networks.

But it gives those communities a clearer sense of how much and how long it will take to get a network up and running, clarifying questions about those painstaking pole-by-pole negotiations that make up their single largest startup expense.

“We don’t know [the cost] until we go and visit every pole with the pole owner,” Jordan, with the Downeast Broadband Utility, said.

Logged off

Municipally funded networks are one solution to the problem that officials statewide agree needs some kind of outside support, according to the Maine Municipal Association.

“In recent years, it has become clear that without state and federal assistance, expanding infrastructure into Maine’s unserved and underserved regions will not become a near-term reality,” the association wrote in a 2018 paper on federal issues.

The association did not take a position on the new pole attachment regulations, but it wrote “there is now widespread recognition by local officials that internet access is unreliable, unaffordable, slow, or a combination thereof in their individual communities. This is an issue from the smallest plantations and islands to the largest cities, impacting schools, hospitals, farmers, and small businesses.”

Increasingly, though, localities are faced with taking matters into their own hands, according to Heinen, of Islesboro.

“It would be better to have a statewide vision and some leadership at the state level, but honestly towns are taking matters into their own hands, and, to the extent that they’re able, there are a lot of ways to do that,” he said.

In Washington County, the problem is particularly acute, based on the demand for internet connections at area libraries, which are tied in to a fiber-optic data network that’s much faster than most home connections.

In 2015, roughly one in three library visits in the county involved logging onto a library computer. In Cumberland and Sagadahoc counties, it was roughly one in eight, according to survey data from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences.

So, as other parts of the state, too, stare down the challenge of dwindling or aging populations, Calais and Baileyville hope their effort may serve as a case study for public investment in data networks.

Jordan, with the Downeast Broadband Utility, said the nonprofit utility is in discussions with an outside organization that wants to track the project’s impact.

The area’s economic need compelled the communities to collectively authorize borrowing roughly $2.5 million to fund construction of the network, designed by Pioneer Broadband, a Houlton-based company that last year installed a fiber network in that city.

Jordan said Downeast Broadband expects the project will not raise local tax rates, as it will generate revenue by leasing the network to internet service providers. Jordan said they expect that revenue will pay down the loan and interest.

A separate company will operate the network itself, taking a different approach than Islesboro, which decided to contract with one provider, GWI, to operate its fiber network. Downeast will contract with an operator that will allow other providers to join onto the network and offer service to customers with plans that, ideally, will compete on price.

It’s still uncertain what service will cost on the Calais and Baileyville network. It will depend on the companies offering service over the lines, though Jordan said a market survey found 97 percent of customers would be willing to pay $55 a month for speeds of 50 megabits per second for both downloads and uploads.

That’s five times faster than the base state standard set in 2015, which roughly 80 percent of Maine customers did not have at the time.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

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