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Midcoast has historic opportunity to expand broadband

Coalition building in towns across Knox, Waldo counties aimed at creating nonprofit, community-owned utility
By Daniel Dunkle | Apr 02, 2021

Towns throughout Knox County and into Waldo County are deciding this year whether to join a growing coalition working to create a community-owned utility bringing speed-of-light fiber internet access to local users.

John Viehman of the Midcoast Internet Coalition compares the fiber broadband to the present internet available throughout Knox County as the difference between a dirt road and a new 12-lane paved super highway.

Leaders of the coalition agree that with state and federal funding now being allocated toward infrastructure improvement, our community has a historic opportunity to expand broadband. One can compare this effort to what must have been involved in bringing electricity and telephone service to rural America.

In June, Camden and Rockport voters will likely decide whether to form the inter-local agreement to get the nonprofit Midcoast Internet Development Corp. off the ground as a community-owned utility (generally referred to as Midcoast Internet). Leaders from the two towns have been working on the internet expansion for years, and creating this entity will allow it to start applying for the funding.

Coalition Chair Debra Hall, Vice Chair Matthew Siegel and Viehman stress that this will not impact local taxes.

The coalition has now been joined by Northport, Lincolnville, Hope, Camden, Rockport, Rockland, Thomaston and South Thomaston. It has also been in talks with Owls Head, Cushing, Union, Searsmont and Washington.

Currently very few in the Midcoast have fiber internet. Hall explained that many internet users get their access through cable, which means copper wires. With this kind of system, internet speed and performance is affected by how many people are on a node or how far from the node the user is. This is why you might see a slow down on the weekend or in the evening.

With fiber, it is not affected by how many people are on it or distance.

Currently, it is mostly available to large businesses such as banks and Pen Bay Medical Center.

The government sees expanding high-speed internet infrastructure as a priority.

The Portland Press Herald wrote about this opportunity in a March 21 editorial, again comparing it to bringing electricity to rural towns.

“Tucked into the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden this month was $10 billion for rural broadband, which was advocated for by Maine Sen. Angus King. At least $100 million of that is expected to be headed for Maine, giving the state a chance to make a dent in a tough problem.”

King continues to push for high-speed internet expansion in Maine.

The coalition may also be able to go after funding from President Joe Biden’s plans for sweeping infrastructure improvement.

“One observation made by our Coalition members is that more grant money should be going not only to ISPs (Internet Service Providers) who obviously have corporate interests in mind, but rather to community networks or regional efforts such as ours who will own the municipal or regional network and ensure that everyone is served...” Hall said in a letter to local towns. “In fact, at least one ISP is approaching some towns asking that they apply for the ConnectMe grants as a community so that the ISP can build out and privately own a network that the community leadership prefers be owned by the community. I am encouraging those communities in our Coalition to resist those approaches in favor of applying for the grants through our regional utility so that the grant money can be used as their financial contribution to our joint efforts and in the end the community can own the infrastructure (through the regional utility).”

The coalition is committed to working toward serving every user in the area, and Hall expressed concerns about private companies leaving towns with partial build-outs that would not fully address needs.

So what is the cost to local users?

The motto, according to Viehman is “cheaper, faster, better.”

The plan is to build a fiber super highway and bring that access directly to your home. The Internet Service Providers can then lease that infrastructure, not exclusively, but with open access. That means more than one provider competing for your business, lowering costs.

The funding available from the government means that the time is now, the leaders say.

Towns may be putting joining the coalition on a special election or town meeting ballot this year, or voting on it in November.

If all goes well, adding the infrastructure locally could be something we see in about two years.

For more information, visit midcoastinternet.com.

Midcoast Community Internet Coalition Guiding Principles

- Establish regional utility district through interlocal agreement as permitted by State law

- Build a Fiber to the Premises (FTTP) internet network to provide cheaper, faster and better high-speed internet access

- Ensure that the network is open access, inviting multiple providers to deliver services to residents and businesses which will offer a range of products, pricing options and competition

- Establish a minimum symmetrical speed of 100 Mbps for download / upload to be provided by any service provider leasing the utility’s dark fiber network with the capability of providing symmetrical 1 Gig for users choosing that option

- Provide universal access to all residences and businesses within the geographic region of the utility

- Best-in-class customer support with locally managed and operated offices

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Janice B. MCLennan | Apr 05, 2021 10:38

Wouldn't this be wonderful.  Internet is not available to all residents of South Thomaston.  Even when it is, it can be so slow that it is impossible to use.



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