Local communities in Maine are mobilizing to jumpstart economic development, expand educational opportunities, and improve Internet access. The town of Orono, located near the center of the state, announced earlier this month that it will working with nearby Old Town and the University of Maine to deploy an open access fiber network pilot project in an area they wish to promote as a technology park.
The news highlights connectivity improvements in Maine happening at the local level. In August, Rockport solidified its plans to bring fiber to its downtown with partner GWI. Soon after, South Portland announced a similar partnership with GWI to spur economic development. Sanford and Isleboro [PDF] have commissioned studies.
The Main Campus reports that Orono, Old Town, the University of Maine, and GWI have been in the planning phase for some time, but lacked funding to deploy:
“We tried to be the first on the map [with fiber-optics], but there were too many obstacles. Now we have the opportunity to do something,” said Orono Town Manager Sophie Wilson at last Monday’s Economic Development Committee meeting, where the opportunity was presented.
In early 2012, the town was in talks with Old Town and Maine broadband service provider GWI about connecting the towns and the University of Maine to the Three Ring Binder, an 1,100-mile long highway of fiber optic infrastructure that passes underneath Bennoch Road. In order to take advantage of the opportunity, the towns planned on coming together in a collaborative called Old Town-Orono Fiber (OTO Fiber) and applied for grant funding to go through with the project.
Although they weren’t able to receive the necessary funds in 2012, the town is in a better position this time around.
The Three Ring Binder, an open access dark fiber network owned by the Maine Fiber Company, was funded with ARRA stimulus dollars and private investment. The network went live in 2012 but providers have not built out last-mile connections as anticipated. To fill the gaps, these communities are taking matters into their own hands and investing in that last-mile fiber infrastructure.
The partners recently received a $125,000 grant from ConnectME Authority but will need to secure matching funds from the Northern Border Regional Commission. The Commission was created as part of the 2008 Farm Bill to support economic development projects in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. The pilot project will connect to the Three Ring Binder that runs near the park. Cost to the city is estimated at $25,000 - $30,000.
A new tenant, Eastern Maine Health, signed a lease contingent on the pilot project. Other entities are also interested in the location.
According to Town Planner Evan Richert, Eastern Maine Health could potentially bring 150 new jobs to the area.
“It’s going to fill two buildings that have been vacant for two to three [or more] years and which have had quite a drag on the impression of our vitality [as a town],” Richert said.
“It’s also dragging the valuation down at the tech park, part of that $4 million loss in value [reported for fiscal year ‘14] was directly related to lack of rented space out there,” Wilson said.
Columnists from local press are opining about the state's poor connectivity. Bill Nemitz from the Portland Daily Press recently wrote about Wired West in Massachusetts, challenging readers to demand better from elected officials. Some of them already understand the need. Nemitz wrote:
As U.S. Sen. Angus King, a broadband cheerleader if ever there was one, put it in an interview Thursday, high-speed broadband is as important to rural Maine as stringing electrical wires to outlying homes and farms was back in the 1930s.
“We’ve absolutely got to do it,” said King. “It’s an economic death sentence for a community that can’t get broadband.”
In June, Bruce Segee, University of Maine professor of electrical and computer engineering, spoke with the Bangor Daily News about the pilot project:
“If [municipalities] want prosperity, [they] need to make something and bring people from outside to buy it,” Segee said.
Orono, Old Town, South Portland, and Rockport have decided to stop waiting for providers to bring that "something" to their communities and do it themselves. The Daily News:
A desire to attract and grow businesses is part of the reason why Orono and Old Town have taken steps toward building fiber for homes. For Richert, “the economic development of small communities rests less [now] with big developments and real estate but more with startups and established small companies innovating with new products.”
There’s no time to wait for Internet service providers to step up and make the investment themselves.
“We can’t afford to wait,” Richert said. “We need to grow small businesses.”