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The race is on to gather towns, grants for expanded broadband

Town officials take crash course in high-speed technology issues as entities compete for their support and grant dollars
By Daniel Dunkle | Apr 15, 2021

Hope — The Midcoast Internet Coalition and LCI are competing for support from local municipalities and for government dollars as they both push for broadband expansion.

Alan Hinsey, of LCI, has been making the rounds in Hope, Appleton and Lincolnville seeking support for the internet provider's application for a ConnectME Grant.

Meanwhile, in a letter to towns, Midcoast Internet Coalition Chair Debra Hall urged communities instead to put their grant dollars toward the coalition's planned public utility.

Hinsey told the Hope Select Board April 13 that Lincolnville had opted not to support LCI’s application. Appleton has supported the plan.

Residents in Rockport and Camden will likely decide in June whether to enter into an interlocal agreement creating the nonprofit Midcoast Internet Development Corp. This would be a utility owned by the communities building fiber infrastructure that would be open access, meaning that competing internet service providers such as LCI, GWI or Pioneer, could all lease the fiber. With that competition, the customers would see better prices, coalition leaders argue.

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.

In a written statement, Lincolnville Select Board member Josh Gerritsen has made some of the arguments supporting the coalition’s position. After giving the matter a lot of thought, he said he did not believe working with LCI was in the best interest of the town.

“Their least expensive fiber option in Lincolnville, 50 down and 10 up, is $90 a month,” he said. “This includes a phone line that they require subscribers to have. They also require that residents sign a three-year contract. I do not know of any other fiber internet option in the country that is this slow and this expensive or requires such a long contract.

“There is an unprecedented amount of federal and state money flowing into broadband expansion projects, and I don't think it's right that these funds go to expanding fiber networks that are monopolies. LCI is the internet monopoly in our town. Every tax dollar that goes to expanding networks should be for open access networks, where multiple service providers can offer internet service. Not monopolies.”

He argued the town should work with the coalition.

“Midcoast Internet would run fiber to every home. No one gets left behind. ...And the network would be open so multiple service providers could offer internet service. Who doesn't love competition?

“This is a once in a generation opportunity to build a network like this. The massive amounts of federal and state money for broadband can help jumpstart the project, and the rest can be funded through revenue bonds that would not increase taxes on anyone.

“It is also important to note that if we join LCI on this ConnectME grant application, we are shutting the door to working with the coalition, as we will be actively working against building an open-access network in our town. We would be choosing a short-term fix versus a long-term solution.”

Hinsey argues there is no monopoly. Other companies could come in today and start running fiber on the poles in these towns.

Hope Select Board member Bruce Haffner said he supports the plan because LCI was already there and ready. “Lincolnville is a natural monopoly,” he said.

Hinsey said that if the real issue is that you want broadband available at an affordable price, why do you care if it is part of this open network or provided by a local company?

In addition, he argued LCI has already been investing in building fiber infrastructure in Hope, Lincolnville and Appleton. They are already here, one of Lincolnville’s largest employers with about 50 employees.

LCI – affiliated with Lincolnville Telephone Company (LTC) and Tidewater Telecom – has been putting in fiber since 2012 with a large project of about 80 miles of new fiber in 2020 funded through the CARES Act.

Hinsey said there is a huge demand for the services LCI provides with a backlog of applications from people wanting installations.

With the deadline for the ConnectME grant at the end of the month, the coalition would not be ready to go after this round of funding.

Hope’s leaders said they need more information to make this decision.

One of the questions is whether LCI is, in fact, affordable. While it has built a considerable amount of fiber infrastructure in the area, some customers are right on the road by the fiber, and some are down side roads and long driveways. The installation fee is $288, which Hinsey said is the cost of labor to go from the pole to the house, and that gives you the first 250 feet. After that, the price is an additional $1 per foot.

Melissa Hall, a Hope member of the Broadband Committee, said GWI and Pioneer are working with the coalition, and that it is not starting from square one.

It was noted during the meeting that LCI may be able to move forward with the application even without permission from the towns, unless the towns specifically send a letter saying they do not want to participate in the ConnectMe grant with the company.

Debra Hall provided an update from the Midcoast Internet Coalition: “We have been quite active recently in speaking to state and federal legislators to encourage the preference of municipal and community networks as recipients of American Rescue Act and other grant funds over providing those funds to for-profit ISPs,” she said. “We believe that where municipalities have, through their leadership, opted for open access networks with universal coverage to their residents, that taxpayer funding should be supported to further those endeavors, not the further expansion of monopolies.”

One of the challenges will not just be funding for broadband expansion. It will be finding the workforce to build it.

Both Hinsey and Hall said their organizations are providing training opportunities to create the next generation of fiber workers.

“We are working with various entities to establish a training center at the Midcoast School of Technology to train fiber installers,” Hall said. “...We have reached out to all the ISPs in the region to join with us (and the Maine Dept. of Labor) in supporting a STEM grant that would help get this program off the ground. So far, cooperation is good.”

Hinsey said LCI is providing training at its sites and the students are provided through the Midcoast School of Technology.

Representatives of LCI and the Midcoast Internet Coalition are expected to meet with members of the Hope Select Board soon and continue the discussion.

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