Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 115

Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for episode 115 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Richard Bates on the first muni fiber net in Maine - Rockport. Listen to this episode here.

 

00:10:

Richard Bates:  It just seemed like if the town was going to step up and help do this, then the town should own the network.

00:16:

Lisa Gonzalez:  Hi, and welcome again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.  This is Lisa Gonzalez.

Richard Bates, Town Manager of Rockport, Maine, joins Chris, to discuss the state's first municipal fiber network.  An established media arts school in this harbor town needed high-capacity connectivity -- a rarity in a town of less than 4,000 people.  Town leaders saw a partnership opportunity to give the college the connectivity it needed while simultaneously creating an economic development tool.  This project is small compared to many other networks we examine, but it underscores the fact that each town is unique, and should have the freedom to do what it takes to meet its needs.  Here are Chris and Richard.

00:59:

Chris Mitchell:  Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.  Today, we're speaking with Richard Bates, the Town Manager of Rockport, Maine -- the first municipal network in Maine.  Welcome to the show.

01:12:

Richard Bates:  Thank you.  Thanks.  Great to be here.

01:15:

Chris:  I'm excited to have you on the show, and to talk about Maine.  I've been up there a number of times.  Why don't you start by telling us a little bit about Rockport.

01:24:

Richard:  Rockport's a beautiful little community, kind of nestled between Camden and Rockland, on Route 1.  And one of my goals in being here was to get us known as more than that quaint little village that's between Camden and Rockland, on Route 1, while people are driving to Arcadia.  And to bring some attention to this beautiful place.  And some jobs, and economic development, and diversity to the community.

01:53:

Chris:  And about how many people are in Rockport?

01:57:

Richard:  About 3300.

01:58:

Chris:  And I'm guessing they don't all live right along that section of Route 1 that so many of us are familiar with.

02:03:

Richard:  No, no, they don't.  And there's a lot more -- we're worth the turn.  Make the turn, and come into the village, and make the turn, and go out into the rural areas.  We're worth the turn.  But people are so focused with getting to Camden, or getting to Arcadia National Park that they just kind of breeze by us.  It's a beautiful place.

02:21:

Chris:  Well, I can say that I will make the turn next time I go through there.  I've stopped in a number of the towns, and, frankly, I've never been disappointed.  But let me ask you, what's the Internet access situation throughout town?  How's that working out for everyone in Rockport?

02:36:

Richard:  The system that we've installed is a very, very small system, and it serves a very small portion of the total population at this point.  You know, it's the -- pretty standard access, which is, you know, it's OK, for the normal homeowner, to be able to download Netflix or Hulu or, you know, do some of the gaming stuff online.  It's probably OK for that.  But for any business that's data-driven, and information-driven, and needs Internet access, those speeds are way too slow.

03:13:

Chris:  Let me ask you, do you have a fair amount of those sort of businesses that are maybe coming out of the Boston area and are looking for a different kind of quality-of-life, that are interested in moving to Rockport, but haven't really been able to do that because of the Internet access?

03:29:

Richard:  No, we have not.  And that's why we did this -- is that -- my belief is that those people are all about place.  You know, they love the work they do, and they do that work.  But they need to be in a place -- they want to be in a place that's creative.  And beautiful.  And they're about place.  But they also need that high-speed Internet access.  They need to be able to access the Internet at really high rates of speed.  And, you know, the idea was that if we could drive that kind of potential access here, plus the fact that we have a reasonably good airport 15 minutes away, and a hospital in town.  We have a pretty cool place.  And if you need to be in Boston, you can be in Boston in 55 minutes by plane.  And you can be in New York for a lunch meeting if you had to.

04:21:

Chris:  Now, you made a sort of modest comment, saying that you haven't gone very far.  I don't exactly remember your exact words.  But let me just pause to remind everyone that a lot of really impressive municipal networks started off modestly, with a few investments.  Let's just take a step back, and then you can tell us what you've done.

04:41:

Richard:  Yeah.  Basically, it was driven by a need of -- one particular business was kind of the seed that started the whole thing going.  We have locally -- one of the things Rockport has going for it is -- we have a lot of the experiential learning opportunities here.  And one of them is Maine Media College and Workshops, which is a -- it's been in existence for, I believe, 40 years.  They were all -- it was all photography back 40 years ago.  And as things changed, everything's become more digital.  And so the work that they're doing requires a lot more bandwidth, and a lot more digital transfer of information.  So they were kind of hamstrung, with how fast or how big they could get, or services that they could provide for students.  Plus the fact that, back, you know, 20 years ago, when computers and all that -- people first started having Internet access, the school basically provided a computer terminal, for students to work at.  Today, the students come with their own laptop, their own tablet, and smart phones.  So there's three different places that people are trying to access the Internet.  And they -- you know, they'll have a hundred students there.  The driver was that they needed -- to be able to be competitive, they needed to have, you know, high- -- really high-speed access, that only fiber could provide.  The thought was, how do we get it to them?  And then as we started talking about how to best do this, it just seemed like if the town was going to step up and help do this, then the town should own the network.

06:25:

Chris:  If I understood correctly, the original plan was, Maine Media College was going to put in a significant amount of money, and then the town was asked to match it.  Was that what happened, before or after, as you're describing this process?

06:39:

Richard:  It's a very complex formula.  Maine Media College put in some cash.  It was -- the state Research and Education Network [REN] put in some money.  And then they also diverted money.  Instead of the normal fee that Maine Media College would be paying Maine REN to access the system, they converted that back into money to help pay for the installation of the fiber.  And then the town basically matched that -- that total amount.  So that brought it up to $60,000.  And then GWI came in, and they were the project managers.  And they basically did all the engineering and pole licensing and all the attachment stuff and all of those pieces.  So they have an investment "in-kind" that we owe them -- we owe them back in Internet, you know, in access fees.  Basically, they have an account with us -- or we have an account with them -- so we'll be basically paying them back by not charging them, for X number of years, for per-user fees, for accessing
the Internet.

07:48:

Chris:  So over time, GWI -- this local ISP -- in the initial years, they won't be paying any, sort of, rent, basically.  But then over time, as they pay off -- or, as you pay off -- the debt, then they will start paying rent after that.

08:06:

Richard:  Exactly.  Right now, it's $14 per user per month.  So, depending on how many users we get, you know, that we get online.  But the current line that we put in really only has 70 potential "rooftops," as he calls it.  There's only 70 potential users along that route.  Some businesses, but many residents.  I think they're probably 30 percent businesses and the rest residential.

08:38:

Chris:  OK.  And then, just for people who aren't aware, GWI is -- I believe it was originally short for "Great Works Internet."  Is that right?

08:46:

Richard:  Yes. Um-hum.

08:46:

Chris: And they're one of those local ISPs that I think we all wish that many of us had a choice to choose from, because when we're stuck with the big companies, we sort of forget how good customer service can get from a local company like that.

09:01:

Richard:  Oh, absolutely.  Yeah.  They've been -- they were very helpful, and stepped up, really got behind the whole idea of, this is a different model, and what's -- you know, let's see if we can make this work.  I mean, there were challenges.  But we all worked together and figured out how to make this work best.  You know, it's an experiment that we're all hoping will work, and we'll get more expansion of the network here.  Because where the line comes in, it's the densest population area in Rockport.  So you can cover a lot of rooftops in a small distance.

09:37:

Chris:  One of the questions that I have is, knowing Maine, it's a -- you know, you've got that New England, Yankee conservatism, in the sense that, you know, you had this money -- the use for it was actually tax money that had gone unused.  I'm just curious how, you know, with so many citizens not having access to this fiber line, is there still a very supportive community for having spent the money in that way?

10:04:

Richard:  The money that was used -- the tax increment financing -- it's money that the town decides, at a certain point in time, they create this geographic area, and say, we're going to put money into this geographic area.  We want to put money in for infrastructure.

10:23:

Chris:  Often to revitalize a community where, you know, there might not be jobs and that sort of thing.

10:28:

Richard:  Exactly.  Right.  You establish a value at that point in time, when you create the TIF district.  And then all of the new tax money that comes in -- that captured value -- if any new money comes in, goes into this TIF fund, and gets used for infrastructure improvements in that zone.

10:48:

Chris:  Right.  And this is -- "TIF" is short for the "Tax Increment Financing."

10:52:

Richard:  Right.  So basically, you know, one of the challenges that we had -- it wasn't a big challenge, but, back when they created this tax increment financing district, fiber was not an option.  You know, up here, it wasn't even on our horizon at that point.  So it's not listed as one of the things that we could use the money for.  You know, there's things like sidewalk improvements, burying power lines, all that kind of stuff -- the normal stuff.  Fiber wasn't one of the things that was listed.  And so we had to go back to the voters and get a change to the tax increment financing district, to include the language that allows the money to be spent on fiber expansion, and also get the authorization to spend that money, which the voters overwhelmingly supported.

11:48:

Chris:  It's always interesting to get a better sense of how these things work out, because, you know, you see a headline, "First Municipal Fiber Network in Maine."  It is a big deal.  But it's also a sense, I think, that, you know, that you're doing what you can, and you'll learn from this, and, you know, in two years, who knows what will happen.

12:07:

Richard:  For me, this is -- it was all about economic development.  The downtown village, close to the harbor, is seeing a resurgence and a revitalization.  And half the village, that's there -- you know, half the available space -- isn't built yet.  There are two fairly large multi-story buildings, that will be built up, that will be available.  And from my point of view, having those buildings, and the existing buildings, all have the capacity for high-speed fiber, makes them much more attractive for a developer and also for potential tenants.

12:48:

Chris:  Definitely.  We've seen that in a number of other communities as well.

12:50:

Richard:  The buildings that will go in there, and the existing buildings that are there, have a view of the most spectacular harbor I have -- I think I'm a little biased, but -- on the Maine coast, is Rockport Harbor.  So, you know, if you had your office on the third floor or fourth floor or fifth floor of that building, you get a spectacular view of Rockport Harbor and Penobscot Bay.  It doesn't get much better than that.

13:14:

Chris:  No.  Having seen both, they are beautiful.  Is there anything else that you'd like to share with us about the network or the town?

13:23:

Richard:  No.  Just that it's a beautiful place, and, you know, if somebody could come here, do business at a really high level, and be in a place that they loved being, with a good school system, and be able to access the Internet, and also access transportation systems.  And be in a place that they love.  I think that's what's important, that we capitalize on that.

13:45:

Chris:  I think so.  And one of the things that pops to mind, actually -- even though I gave you an opportunity to finalize, I want to ask you one more question, and that is -- How have any of your neighbors reacted to this?  I mean, have you talked with other local town administrators?

13:58:

Richard:  This -- kind of shocked, I think.  They're kind of shocked that it actually happened.  Some said this could never happen.  So there's a little bit of shock.  Some of the -- it seems like it's mostly the community development people and the economic development people see it and go, oh my God, yeah, this is -- that is a big deal.  We're not going to be exporting from Maine.  We're not going to be manufacturing things and exporting them around the country and around the world like we used to.  We'll always export the things that are uniquely Maine...

14:32:

Chris:  Um-hum.

14:32:

Richard:  ... and some of the other things that are unique to our area.  Those things will always be part of our economic engine.  It's not the new thing that's going to keep us sustained in the future.  We need to be able to export other things, that we can do over the Internet, and it's kind of that data-driven work that can happen here.  It can happen here as well as any place else in the world.

14:53:

Chris:  Well, it sounds like you've also inspired those around you.  So, that's always a good dynamic to see.  Not just that your town has a good idea but hopefully the region will pick up the idea and run with it, and you will all benefit.

15:05:

Richard:  You're exactly right.  It's a region.  And Rockport, on its own, is not going to be able to survive without Camden and Rockland being successful.  And we're kind of all together here.  And we're all kind of on an island.  And there's Lincolnville and Hope and Union, and all the small communities.  That's one of the beauties of this area, is that you can be in an exciting small city in Rockland, or Camden, or, you know, exciting town of Rockport.  But then you drive a mile and a half inland and you're in rural -- really rural -- countryside.  Blueberry fields and farms and cows.  And so the idea is that, hopefully, as a region, we will start to be seen as a place where people can live, learn, work, and play.

15:53:

Chris:  Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

15:55:

Richard:  OK.  Great.

15:56:

Lisa:  Be sure to check out our story on Rockport at muninetworks.org.

Please send us your ideas for the show.  E-mail us at podcast@muninetworks.org.  Follow us on Twitter.  Our handle is @communitynets.  This week, we want to thank the Bomb Busters for their song, "Good To Be Alone," licensed using Creative Commons.  Thanks for listening, and have a great day.

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