Local governments in Maine have been going all out in the past few years to address the problem of lack of high-quality Internet access in rural areas. Now, Cumberland County is using Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) to help develop a resource they hope will assist local communities interested in publicly owned Internet access infrastructure. They’ve released a Request for Proposals (RFP) to Develop Regional Broadband Planning and Management; proposals are due October 31, 2018.
Elected officials in Cumberland County report that local community leaders from different towns throughout the county have expressed an interest in a regional initiative for better connectivity. At least four towns and the Greater Portland area have been working to develop broadband plans with an eye toward regional possibilities. This RFP is an effort to bring all those separate plans together and examine the possibility of a regional utility.
The county has determined that the playbook should provide information in three main areas: resource mapping, financing, and utility development.
Information to be included in the document will provide estimated costs and challenges of building fiber networks to each municipality in Cumberland County. This mapping portion of the playbook should compare last mile connectivity costs to middle mile network costs, consider specific plans for some of the county’s hard-to-reach areas, and examine working with privately owned fiber that is currently in place.
County officials want respondents to investigate and propose ways to finance a regional utility. They also want to know more about models that include both publicly owned and privately owned infrastructure. As part of the playbook, county officials expect a survey of residents in Cumberland County.
Lastly, the county wants a resource that will help local communities band together to form a broadband utility that can serve the region. According to the RFP, county officials want to know more about what it would require to establish a regional broadband utility that could negotiate contracts with Internet service providers (ISPs), work with companies to complete maintenance and construction, serve as a fiscal agent, and handle legal requirements for the utility. One place they could look for inspiration is Baileyville and Calais, about four hours northeast. The two communities have joined forces and are developing their own dark fiber network, the Downeast Broadband Utility (DBU). The publicly owned DBU infrastructure will connect approximately 3,000 premises with Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) and will work with private providers to get subscribers online.
We interviewed Julie Jordan, the Director of DBU in June 2018 for the Community Broadband Bits podcast; listen to our conversation.
People to be served by the DBU needed to establish their own broadband utility in part because, due to the rural nature of the area, the big incumbents wouldn’t upgrade infrastructure. While Cumberland County is more populous, with approximately 293,000 people in they most densely populated area of the state, many of the towns still don’t have access to broadband as defined by the FCC — 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. Lack of fast, affordable, reliable connections occurs even in the most densely populated areas of Cumberland County. Portland is the county seat, but there are also a significant number of communities that are unincorporated along with towns and the additional cities of South Portland and Westbrook.
Earlier this year, officials obtained a $25,000 federal CDBG to dedicate toward planning a regional broadband utility. Planning is only one of the ways communities have been using CDBG to improve local connectivity. In Virginia, Nelson County and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority have both used the funding source to expand.
Questions Due: October 12, 2018
Answers to Questions Released: October 24, 2018
Proposals Due: October 31, 2018
Decision: November 9, 2018
Work Begins: November 23, 2018