On an icy December morning, John Moore watched his lineman lash fiber-optic cable between utility poles along a wooded road in northeastern Maine’s town of Dedham.
The work is part of statewide efforts to deliver high-speed internet to everyone who wants it, whether they live in more populous areas around Portland or in the state’s extensive rural regions, where more than half the state’s population resides.
Just days earlier, Governor Janet Mills announced Maine had been awarded an additional $5.5 million “Internet for All” planning grant in federal funding to plan for the deployment and use of affordable high-speed Internet service throughout the state. According to the Maine Connectivity Authority, the $5.5 million is just one piece of almost $250 million in federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding Maine will most likely receive.
Maine’s 2020 Broadband Plan estimated the total cost to build out 17,502 miles currently unserved by fiber-optic or coax cable would be at least $600 million. To advance digital equity for all Mainers, regardless of ZIP Code, in 2021 the state created the Maine Connectivity Authority, a quasi-public agency, to attract state and federal investment in broadband infrastructure through partnerships with private providers and rural communities.
Mills concluded her announcement by pledging that “every person in Maine who wants a reliable and affordable internet connection” can have one by the end of 2024.
“That is my promise,” she said.
Laying fiber cable to remote regions is the first phase of making good on that promise.
To bring fiber broadband to their rural town of 1,648 people, Dedham contributed $168,000 in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. A grant from Connect Maine (part of the Maine Connectivity Authority) provided $1.2 million. Premium Choice invested $1.9 million.
According to Bill Varney, CEO of Premium Choice, with miles yet to go the full project had exceeded the initial budget of $3.2 million.
The Last Mile
Historically, many internet service providers (ISP’s) have avoided this last stretch of connectivity, termed the last mile, between the (ISP) network and the users in homes and businesses. The reasoning is that the cost of laying and maintaining fiber-optic cable in remote regions is too expensive.
“Before we started laying fiber, some of these folks only had a phone line, maybe dial up,” Moore said.
Even when cable does pass near a home or business, running the last stretch of fiber to the premises was a costly proposition, especially in less densely populated areas.
“Few could afford it,” Moore said. “Last year as we were laying cable, kids would be sitting on their porch without the ability to connect to school online. Getting fiber’s gonna change their life.”
Moore added that no other type of internet can match fiber optic-broadband. “It’s as small as a piece of hair. It sends communications [at] the speed of light, right into your home. It is the best, fastest internet you can get.”
While critics in cash-strapped regions contend fiber is excessive, broadband experts like Downeast Broadband Utility President Danny Sullivan think otherwise.
“We started with dial-up, then went wireless, then fixed wireless. We’ve gone to cable. We’ve done satellite,” Sullivan said. “All these technologies connect to the internet backbone, which is already fiber.
“The problem for most rural places, particularly remote ones, is the last mile (the last leg to the consumer) is copper, cable, or fixed wireless because it’s cheaper. But it’s far inferior.”
Sullivan said everyone – not just tech-heavy businesses – needs faster speeds that fiber allows.
“Fiber is the only platform that provides equal download and upload speeds. Whether you’re a content creator, a business, a health entity, or even a retired person receiving telehealth care, fast upload speed is a fundamental necessity. It’s time to stop reinventing this wheel and get fiber installed to businesses and homes in all communities, no matter how rural.”
To Have and Have Not
Elizabeth Neptune, a national consultant and content creator working remotely from the northernmost region of Maine, lives in Indian Township, one of the few rural communities with fiber broadband.
Remembering the day her fiber connection was installed, Neptune laughed.
“I was like a six-year-old on Christmas morning. I could Zoom with ease. I could share Google Docs with organizations. When I had cable (internet), I paid three times as much and I couldn’t even use Microsoft Teams for video conferencing. The upload speed was far too slow. It would get bogged down and freeze, especially in bad weather.”
Asia Eaton put college on hold because of limited Internet connectivity. (Photo by Carolyn Campbell)
Asia Eaton, a 26-year-old new homeowner and college student living along Maine’s coast is waiting for fiber to arrive.
“The internet struggle is real,” she said as she brewed coffee at the 44 North Coffee in Deer Isle. “The ISP at my new house had capped off my neighborhood because it had too many accounts. It made it so hard to be an online student. I’d put my work on a Google Doc, then when I was in a place with internet, whether it was a library or work, I’d save it, then email it. It was rough. I ended up pausing my education.”
As communities secure funding and residents await high-speed internet, installers like Moore string fiber optic cable along Maine’s rural backroads. Moore looked up at his lineman splicing cable.
“Forty years from now, he’s going to look up and say to his kid, ‘I built that. I helped rebuild America.’“
Carolyn Campbell is a freelance journalist writing about rural communities across America. Over the next three months, she will be writing about Maine’s approach to providing affordable high-speed internet to its rural residents.
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