Insidious misinformation, false promises, and a fear of government-operated anything can be major barriers to getting a municipal broadband network off (or in) the ground. There is no clear playbook for how to disable these land mines, no clear path to success because every community is different: the people, the geography, and the incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs). But this past November, two communities in Maine facing similar access issues and similar political environments had two very different outcomes when municipal broadband was up for vote.
Just over 90 miles apart, Leeds (pop. 2,300) and Hampden, Maine (pop. 7,200), have had motivated people in the community and in leadership advocating for better Internet access for years. In November 2021, the work of both these community initiatives was tested as voters were asked to decide whether or not to move forward with their respective municipal broadband plans.
One ended in victory and the other in defeat shrouded in a haze created by big cable and telephone monopolies among a fog of misinformation.
In Leeds, residents voted at a special town meeting to move forward with a $2.2 million bond to help build a municipally-owned fiber optic network to underserved areas with the help of Axiom, a small, local Internet Service Providers (ISP). In nearby Hampden residents voted against a $4.5 million revenue bond to build a community network and are stuck waiting for TDS and Charter-Spectrum to bridge the gap in access. How did these two communities have such divergent outcomes?
Campaigning for Broadband
Peggy Schaffer, Director of the ConnectMaine Authority, has been watching the battle for better broadband play out in Leeds and Hampden, and while she admits there are a lot of factors in making something like a municipal broadband service stick, conversations and education are fundamental.
“At some point, when you’ve decided to take this path, and you’re gonna go to the public to ask them to do something, you have to step back and think of it as a political campaign, like you’re running for office.”
She said you have to be knocking on doors and constantly having conversations with the community.
“As you identify people who are interested or willing to support you, you’re going to need to track who those people are and make sure they get out to vote.”
Joe McLean, a civil engineer and volunteer on the Leeds Broadband Committee, said the committee held regular forums throughout the entire planning process.
“We had several public meetings about this topic [before the vote]. We spent a lot of time educating everyone about [service quality and the financial model],” McLean said.
The two main providers in Leeds are Consolidated Communication and Charter-Spectrum. But, according to a Leeds Broadband Committee survey, 59 percent of residents said they were dissatisfied with the incumbents’ service.
The Leeds Broadband Committee joined a coalition, the Western Kennebec Lakes Community Broadband Association (WKLCBA), back in 2019 to create a regional broadband utility.
When they ultimately decided that wasn’t the route that would work best for them, they started looking for resources and getting up to speed on what it would really take to bring fiber-to-the-home to underserved residents in the town on their own. They brought in a consultant to determine the financial and environmental feasibility. They visited other towns with projects in the works or already built, and they surveyed the community to see where the access was lacking. Each step of the way, they were keeping town leadership and the community informed.
And that last part - leadership buy-in - was a major key to the success of the vote in November.
“Going through that process and regularly meeting with our selectmen, bouncing ideas off of them, trying to keep them engaged in the process, making them recognize it’s a problem,” McLean said. “There are other towns in our coalition where this committee of volunteers has been working for a long time, but did not bring along town staff that was in charge -- like their selectmen. And so, as much as they wanted to make something happen, they didn’t really have the real backing of town leadership, and it has led to difficulties.”
And what makes this even more challenging for many communities across Maine, is the flood of cable company dollars behind opposition campaigns in which both Leeds and Hampden were targeted.
Big Telecom Interference
A few towns over, Hampden was also working away on solving its broadband issues. TDS and Charter-Spectrum wasn’t responding to the town's request for better service, at least not until the city decided to come up with its own solution.
Since 1971, TDS has been one of the dominant incumbent providers. However, the company has left parts of the state with dial-up as the only option, with small towns like Hampden having 335 homes without access to the state's minimum definition of broadband of 50/10 Megabits per second (Mbps).
The town decided to move forward with Axiom, the same ISP working with Leeds. Initially, there was excitement as it seemed that finally Hampden would get the high-speed, reliable Internet access residents needed.
Amy Ryder, Hampden Town Manager, put together a broadband committee to continue the momentum and started holding public forums to educate the community.
The broadband committee put out an essay contest in the schools, urging families to start thinking critically about their lack of connectivity. Ryder held three public forums, spreading word about the meetings and municipal broadband with three unique flyers addressing the questions raised during the first forum.
“The public engagement was far more than I expected,” Ryder said. “I think, obviously, with the pandemic, it brought it to light … there were a lot of people in favor of it because of the terrible service, customer service from (TDS).”
But something in the air changed by the time the committee held the last public forum, Ryder said. As the prospect of a municipally-owned network was getting closer to becoming a reality, attention turned to the $4.5 million bond needed to make it happen. The Board of Selectmen needed to vote for the bond to get onto the ballot in November. It passed by a tight margin - 4 to 3.
It’s no surprise that residents were hesitant about the price tag as the fiscally-conservative culture in many towns in Maine translates into a leeriness about taking on any debt, Peggy Schaffer said.
“Even if the idea is that it’s a revenue bond, and there’s a revenue stream that pays it off from subscribers … they’re very reluctant to borrow money,” she said. “Most small towns do not bond. They save, they scrimp.”
To make matters worse, two weeks before the vote on November 4th, residents started seeing pamphlets in their mailboxes calling the bond a waste of Hampden tax dollars and making claims that it would raise property taxes, increase the price of broadband bills and inhibit access to important community resources.
While Charter-Spectrum nor TDS can be tied directly to the opposition campaign given the lack of disclosure rules, 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.
Peggy Schaffer said that Charter-Spectrum has, for years, lobbied at the State House and hired both Democratic and Republican liaisons to go out into these communities to work with towns to try and kill municipal owned broadband projects, which these companies see as an existential threat to their bottom-lines.
In addition to the public perception campaign, Charter-Spectrum and TDS came in at “the 12th hour” -- as Ryder describes it -- with an offer to extend service to the underserved homes in Hampden. Charter-Spectrum said that if the bond passed they would retract their offer, while TDS said they would build out either way.
The three selectmen who voted against the bond applauded the offer, while the other four selectmen wanted to see how the public would vote. So the selectmen directed Ryder and the committee not to try and combat the negative campaign.
“It was what they felt was in the best interest of the town,” Ryder said.
While the broadband committee remained silent on the spread of misinformation by this campaign, the town was voting. The bond was thoroughly defeated -- 1,407-981 against.
Ryder said if she could do it all again she would have put more information out about the proposed municipal networks’s service offerings and prices earlier and also would have created a way for people to pre-register for service to reassure those who were skeptical that the town could meet the revenue target to pay back to bonds without raising taxes.
Ultimately, the plan for bringing a community network to Hampden didn’t pan out. But, Ryder said, it did push both companies to sign letters of commitment, with TDS saying it will build out fiber-to-the-home to 95 percent of the town by 2023. Spectrum has agreed to service the areas they are not currently servicing.
So while Ryder and other broadband advocates in town are hopeful the incumbents will follow through, they are now at the mercy of the providers without any recourse. For the time being, the opportunity for a community-owned network and all of the benefits that come with it is dead in the water.
“We now have, for the first time, outside people coming into our towns to try to influence those decisions and that's a new thing for us that we should watch out for,” Schaffer said.
How David Overcame Goliath
A more organized education campaign and full backing by leadership in Leeds led to a better outcome. The Maine Civic Action launched a similar campaign in their town as well, but it didn’t have the same effect.
“When it came to the opposition … in our community, we were ready for it,” McLean said. “A lot of the opposition talking points come from a place where they assume the people don’t know what’s going on.”
McLean said he thinks most residents found the talking points ridiculous because of how much education they did around the community. Because their initial education campaign was so strong, they didn’t need to do much to demystify this information for the residents or the selectmen.
Another tactic that McLean said made a difference was polling town residents with Survey Monkey, which gave the committee a sizable data set and an email list of interested residents. They would share the data they collected from the survey at public meetings, impressing upon the community how crucial this network would be.
“The fact that it was at a special town meeting, so you really had to be motivated, and sometimes what really motivates you is getting it,” she said. Peggy Schaffer also said that the way these communities voted on their respective measures had a big impact on the outcome. Hampden put the bond on a general election ballot, while Leeds brought it to a vote at a special town meeting.
Charter-Spectrum is still pushing this crude misinformation in Leeds, even after the vote. As we noted in a report years ago in Colorado, municipal broadband can create enough price competition to cost these monopolies millions of dollars each year, which means stopping the movement in the smallest towns is worth a major investment.
While every town is different, there are a few major ingredients to having a greater potential for success: buy-in from town leadership, firing up and informing the community, and being prepared for well-funded opposition campaigns whenever a local community threatens the monopoly ISPs piece of the pie.
Header image courtesy of Acroterion, Wikimedia