Maine falling behind on high-speed InternetExperts: Hurts economy, healthcare, education
Peter Rogers is fed up.
He and his neighbors on and near Ballyhac Road in Owls Head have been trying to gain access to high-speed Internet service for nine years. The area is served by spotty wireless providers now, but local cable companies will not run the fiber optic cables needed to give them better service. This, even though they are willing to pay for it.
"We are eager almost to the point of desperation," said neighbor Annie Higbee in an email to Michael Edgecomb of Time Warner Cable. "It just doesn't seem natural to have to fight for this."
The neighbors say the lack of access to quality broadband makes it hard to work from home. Higbee is a real estate broker. Her neighbor Steve Hansen is a consultant. They cannot stream video on Netflix. In some cases, they cannot even get access to cable television. Higbee's 13-year-old daughter has to go to a friend's house to post YouTube videos.
Higbee also worries about an emergency. Will they have access to information as quickly as those with Internet in the event of a disaster?
They are within five miles of Rockland and right next to the county airport.
They are not alone in their struggle.
"Forty thousand Maine households (7 percent) don't have broadband access," according to the Governor's Broadband Capacity Building Task Force Report issued in December. "The ConnectME Authority estimates it will cost $60 million to build the infrastructure to reach them."
Maine ranks 49th among the 50 states for its quality and availability of broadband Internet service, according to The Portland Press Herald.
Falling behind could have dire economic consequences for the state in terms of lost job growth, problems accessing healthcare and government services, and students falling behind, according to the report.
Phillip Lindley is executive director of the ConnectME Authority, which provides government grants to help improve Internet access and infrastructure. He said the concerns include the quality of the Internet access (too slow in many places), and the access. Asked where the dead zones are, he said if you go anywhere in the state, you find roads outside town without access to high-speed Internet, while the core village or downtown center has better access.
In Knox County, 98 percent of the addresses or households have access to tier 1 broadband Internet, he said.
Tier 1 is a basic measurement of broadband access, at least 1.5 megabits per second to be specific. He said that is enough to surf the Web or stream a movie and in some cases play a realtime video game online, though the quality goes down as multiple members of the household use their devices at once.
For example, if you have two adults each streaming Netflix on different TVs, and two teenagers, one playing an online game and another surfing the net on a computer, that puts a strain on the broadband.
Knox County's 98 percent compares well to the state average of 93.1 percent.
In Waldo County, 86.7 percent of households have the same broadband access. In Lincoln County it is 99.4 percent.
Fletcher Kittredge of GWI said he believes more than 7 percent are without access. He said the state's data is less than accurate and the problem is worse than that data suggests.
"There are many tiny pockets of unserved areas in the three counties where your subscribers live," Kittredge said. "...The pockets are what is known in the industry as 'high cost areas.'"
So why not just build some poles and run the cable to those neighbors in Owls Head and others who are demanding better access?
Lindley noted this is not a regulated or subsidized public utility like phone service or electricity. It is up to private companies to build the infrastructure for online service and they need some assurance of return on their investment.
In densely populated areas, this is not an issue. On back country roads with few houses, long distances between, and long driveways, this means a major investment to reach a small number of customers. Edgecomb of Time Warner Cable, in his emails to the neighbors, indicates the company looks for a density of 20 homes per mile.
He added it could cost up to $30,000 per mile to install the needed equipment.
"Our agreement with the town of Owls Head requires that we provide service in areas that have at least 20 homes per mile," Time Warner Public Relations Manager Joli Plucknette-Farmen said in an email. "...We not only meet that requirement, but exceed it wherever possible. Based on our recent survey, the Ballyhac Cove area averages 12 homes per mile.
"Time Warner Cable continuously invests in its network... This investment totaled over $65 million in Maine over the past seven years," Plucknette-Farmen said.
The neighbors say they have been told they fall short with only 17 homes per mile rather than 20. They question whether that is an accurate assessment of the density of their neighborhood.
For the past six years, ConnectME has been providing grants to help pay for the infrastructure improvements, but Lindley pointed out it is a small, three-person state agency with limited funding. It receives one quarter of 1 percent of the surcharge customers see in their phone bill, cable bill and satellite TV bill. That amounts to $1.25 million per year.
It has gone through eight rounds of grant funding, helping with 114 projects around the state. That amounts to $9 million in public money. The agency favors those seeking matching grants where the applicant puts in some money and applies for a 50 percent match. That way the money goes further, funding $17 million in projects so far. All of this has added 36,000 households.
"It all boils down to funding," Lindley said. "That's the limitation."
"No, we're not doing enough," said Wayne Jortner of the Maine Office of the Public Advocate, which looks out for the interests of utility consumers. He said there is a price tag to fix this problem in Maine, and it is a lot more money than we are investing at this point. At the federal level, more money is being put into providing broadband, but that is far below the national price tag, he said.
Jortner points out Maine is the most rural state in the country and has the oldest population. He said studies show that among the older demographic, there is less interest and demand for broadband Internet service. For the private companies considering investing in broadband infrastructure, that means if they build it, the people may not come. That can mean losing money.
For that reason, Jortner said, there is a need to educate Mainers about why they need broadband Internet access and all of the benefits from it. The higher the demand, the more economical it will be.
Jortner said what gets lost in the discussion is the fact that while broadband is as important in some ways as phone service and electricity were in the past, government policy around this new utility has been vastly different. Politically, it has been decided not to regulate this industry, so providing the service and setting prices for the service has been left to the private market. In the past utilities were regulated.
He said he receives calls from consumers: People in rural Maine complain to him that they cannot run their business competitively because they have no Internet access, that students are falling behind. People, like the neighbors on Ballyhac Road complain that it is not fair their neighbors have access, but they cannot get it.
Because the industry is not regulated, there is nothing the state government can do to right these perceived wrongs. There is nowhere for the consumer to go, except to private businesses.
What are the alternatives?
The neighbors on Ballyhac Road started this conversation with Verizon nine years ago. They were told to call back every four to six months, and they have.
Higbee said she has knocked on FairPoint's doors in Rockland and even left notes at its facility.
They have talked to GWI and RedZone. Their only options so far have been 4G wireless, a cellphone data plan that caps out after a certain amount of data is expended and becomes extremely expensive from there, or satellite, which does not work well in bad weather.
Jortner said satellite is not a good option for realtime functions, such as talking to a person over the Internet in real time or online gaming. The signal has to go 22,000 miles each way to reach the satellite, and that is if there is an unobstructed view of the southern sky.
"Although wireless is great for serving niche markets, the consensus seems to be that future bandwidth needs will require service by wire — generally assumed to be fiber optic cable," he said. "Wireless does not have the potential bandwidth of fiber and is subject to environmental factors and available spectrum."
"For what it is worth, now that you have identified these areas, we are going to reach out to the consumers and see if we can design a system to serve them and apply for a subsidy to make it economic," Kittredge said in an email March 31. "That is a fix to a tiny part of a large problem. Fixing the big problem will require sustained effort on the part of society. I believe the first step is to invest in getting and maintaining accurate data on a house-by-house basis."
In other parts of the Midcoast, private companies are working to address the issue with state help.
Shirley Manning, president and owner of Linvolnville Telephone Co., said her company has received about $900,000 in grant funding through ConnectME to bring fiber optic right to the customers. The company and its associated companies, including Tidewater Telecom, serve customers from Damariscotta and Nobleboro in Lincoln County to Lincolnville, Appleton and Hope in Knox and Waldo counties.
Construction for her company's upgrade began last year and she expects it to be completed in the next month and a half. Once one project is done through ConnectME, she plans to start another one.
All of her customers have had DSL service, and she eventually wants 100 percent to have access to the best fiber optic broadband service.
For many in the state, however, it will be a long wait.
"We never reached universal telephone or power service either," Kittredge said. "Some people are just off the grid."
"As to the question of when all homes/businesses in Maine will have access... the answer is, with the current system, never."
Courier-Gazette Editor Daniel Dunkle can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 122 or email@example.com.