It is impossible to compete today without fast internet, but slow speeds are still the norm in many parts of Maine. Just 12 percent of Maine households and businesses are considered to have access to effective broadband, according to the ConnectME Authority.
The state’s rural nature presents a chicken-or-the-egg scenario when it comes to making improvements: Rural areas need broadband to be economically competitive, but often there aren’t enough people willing to pay for high-speed internet to make an investment in upgrades worthwhile for a private company.
Calais and Baileyville in Washington County saw a need and did something about it. Last year, they came together to form the nonprofit Downeast Broadband Utility, and this year, they intend to be the first municipalities to take advantage of new rules that give them a right to attach fiber-optic cables to utility poles.
That detail is key. Fiber-optic cables are designed to transmit data. They can send it faster than copper wire networks originally built to transmit telephone signals and cable television. But before new rules went into effect in January, pole owners didn’t have to respond to municipalities that wanted to create their own broadband networks.
Now they do, and Calais and Baileyville are first in line to take advantage of the opportunity. Attaching cables to utility poles will be the biggest cost of the approximately $2.5 million project, which aims to connect fiber to 97 percent of area homes and businesses. Construction is expected to begin this year.
In addition to helping the project get started, having set rules will help clarify costs and project timetables. It should also provide a clearer path for more towns and cities that want to fund their own broadband networks. Other places should pay attention to what’s happening Down East.
There are a few things to watch. Perhaps the most important will be whether the company, or companies, offering faster service over the lines will price it affordably, which will be a factor in determining whether local residents and businesses purchase it. A faster network won’t mean much if people don’t use it.
It will also be helpful to know if the project ultimately has an economic impact, perhaps on household income, employment or business growth. Knowing these details will better inform other communities examining whether to pursue a similar route.
The Downeast Broadband Utility doesn’t anticipate the project will raise local tax rates, as leasing the network to internet service providers is expected to generate revenue to pay down the loan and interest.
Calais and Baileyville deserve kudos for pursuing a new approach to faster internet. It would have been easier to give in to demographic forces, but instead, there is energy behind trying something new. Other Maine communities can learn not just from their methods but their tenacity.
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