Big (Connectivity) Trouble in Little China

In November, a majority of voters in China (not the country, but a small town in Maine) cast their ballots in opposition to a $6.4 million proposal for a municipal broadband network that, if built, would have provided high-speed Internet access to every household and business in this central Maine town of 4,300.

In recent weeks, China residents learned that Consolidated Communications would not be coming to the rescue. As reported by The Town Line, two representatives from Consolidated Communications attended China’s Broadband Committee (CBC) meeting in late January and the company reps “did not encourage (China) to expect an offer from the company to expand [I]nternet service to town residents.”

The CBC estimates that Consolidated currently serves about 20 percent of the town, while Spectrum serves about 70 percent of China’s households. But for the remaining 10 percent of China households without access to high-speed Internet service, the CBC meeting was a disappointing dose of post-election news.

Consolidated representatives Simon Thorne and Sarah Davis told the CBC that China is nowhere close to the top of their expansion plans, as the company bases its decisions on a combination of four primary factors: projected cost to build, number of potential customers, expected take rates, and whether a competitor also serves that market.

China’s population density is too low to offer enough profit to attract investors.

And just to be clear, when CBC member Tod Detre suggested the company is focused on “more profitable areas,” Davis replied, “You nailed it.”

‘Spirited Discussion’ About November Election

That, of course, led to a “spirited discussion” about last November’s election results. Ronald Breton, chairman of the select board and a guest at the CBC meeting, was emphatic in saying that town officials were still interested in facilitating town-wide connectivity, noting how even after the November ballot question failed the town select board unanimously voted that the CBC remain intact.

In response, Janet Preston, a select board member who serves “ex officio” on the CBC, pointed out that the select board and the budget committee both advised voters to reject the bond issue for a municipal network – a move she considered to be “influential.”

Another reason for the failed vote, CBC member Tod Detre added, was that prior to the election, opponents of the project falsely believed “Consolidated would bring fiber [connections to all houses] in a year or two,” upon which Consolidated rep Sarah Davis confirmed the ISP “had and has no such intention.”

Organized Opposition Campaigns Across Maine

As we reported here, a similar story unfolded in Hampden, Maine after an opposition campaign targeted voters there. In Hampden, residents voted against a $4.5 million revenue bond to build a community network, lured in part by the promise by TDS and Charter-Spectrum to expand service in town.

In Hampden, it was an opposition campaign paid for by Maine Civic Action, an advocacy organization operated by the Maine Policy Institute, which itself is a deeply anti-government group. While Charter-Spectrum nor TDS could be tied directly to the opposition campaign because of the lack of disclosure rules in Maine, Charter-Spectrum's Maine government affairs liaison told Maine Public Radio in a statement that the company has given money to the Maine Policy Institute. 

When we spoke to Peggy Schaffer, executive director of the ConnectMaine Authority, she said that Charter-Spectrum has, for years, lobbied at the State House and hired both Democratic and Republican liaisons to go out into local Maine communities to try and kill municipal broadband projects, which these companies see as an existential threat to their bottom-lines. 

The Path Ahead

While it is not clear to us if the failed vote in China was a part of an organized opposition campaign, the CBC continues to explore future options, including the possibility of forming a utility district with neighboring towns, such as Vassalboro and Windsor.

And although there are no connectivity solutions on the immediate horizon for China residents who do not currently have access to high-speed Internet service, they are fortunate to live in a state that is leveraging federal funds to make unprecedented investments in broadband expansion with municipal broadband as a centerpiece of the state’s strategy.

In fact, local governments now have access to numerous funding sources for broadband projects – from the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act, and several other federal programs aimed at bringing better connectivity to rural areas, all which could lead to permanent solutions. However, just because there are funds available doesn’t mean much if local governments don't proactively pursue funding opportunities and/or partners to take action. Here, in China, it looks like a significant portion of voters and local leaders were hoping to be saved by a private marketplace that has shown little or no interest in community-wide service, particularly in less densely populated regions where it is much harder to make a business case for investing in those areas.

To read more about what Maine is doing to reach the goal of providing Mainers with universal access to high-speed Internet service, see our story here.

Header image of “sorry but no” courtesy of The Blue Diamond Gallery, attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Inline image of voting booth courtesy of Flickr user Phil Roeder, attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Inline image of China Dinah sign courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)