Maine towns put up cash for better internet service

It’s a big deal for a small network. For Downeast Broadband, attaching their cables to utility poles is the biggest cost of the roughly $2.5 million project. The rules help make those costs and project timelines more predictable, and that stands to give rural parts of the state clearer paths to funding their own networks.

“Pole attachments, as wonky as they are, were a major regulatory hurdle for small [internet service providers] and communities to figure out and deal with,” said Peggy Schaffer, co-chair of the Maine Broadband Coalition. “It became an unpredictable, expensive process to attach to poles.”

Most of the poles in Maine are owned by electric utilities or Consolidated Communications, which acquired FairPoint Communications last year.

The company owns most of the poles in Calais and Baileyville, and the others are owned by Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative.

As Calais and Baileyville are the first to operate under the rules that give them a leg up in dealing with pole owners such as Consolidated, they have the attention of people who see a potential economic lifeline for fledgling communities where it’s harder for private internet providers to make a profit.

The project aims to make direct fiber connections to 97 percent of area homes and businesses, helping address repeated concerns from the county’s single largest employer, Woodland Pulp and St. Croix Tissue. Dan Sullivan, the mill’s information technology manager, has made regular pleas in Augusta for new state investment in high-speed internet connections.

Sullivan told lawmakers last year that faster internet speeds in the community were critical to the mill’s bottom line and, therefore, its more than 400 employees. But he criticized public investment in upgrades using “outdated technology,” pointing to a DSL line built near his home in Cooper using federal broadband funds.

Once the project starts construction, it will take about two years to complete, but Jordan said the network could light up different sections in phases, providing service sooner for some customers. Jordan expects construction to begin this year. A long time coming

Getting access to utility poles wasn’t impossible before for municipal broadband networks, but it was more difficult. In Islesboro, leaders of a four-year effort to build their own municipal fiber network said they were forced to accept whatever terms a pole owner offered.

Consolidated, the state’s largest incumbent internet service provider, had sought to limit the reach of the new pole attachment rules, arguing unsuccessfully that regulators should step in only to resolve disputes, not to make rules for every application.

Regulators sided with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and groups such as the Islesboro broadband committee, which told regulators that access to funds and “an abundance of obstacles for attaching to poles” were among the top hurdles to expanding broadband “to all corners of Maine.”

Maine regulators create rules governing utility pole attachment, but most states defer to federal rules. Before the new rules took effect in January, Maine last changed its pole attachment rules in 1993, the same year that internet provider AOL began mailing CDs to homes.

The new rules, which bring Maine in line with much of the country, require pole owners to respond to requests from municipal utility districts who want to string up their own fiber, denying them only in specific circumstances, such as when there are safety concerns. Eventually, the rules will include specific guidelines about how pole owners should set rates.

With the new broadband rules, municipalities can’t go it alone, however. They need private companies as partners to actually operate the network, or to “light” the fiber. The Downeast Broadband Utility eventually will solicit bids for a company to operate the network.

“In recent years, it has become clear that without state and federal assistance, expanding infrastructure into Maine’s unserved and underserved regions will not become a near-term reality,” the association wrote in a 2018 paper on federal issues.

The association did not take a position on the new pole attachment regulations, but it wrote “there is now widespread recognition by local officials that internet access is unreliable, unaffordable, slow, or a combination thereof in their individual communities. This is an issue from the smallest plantations and islands to the largest cities, impacting schools, hospitals, farmers, and small businesses.”

In 2015, roughly one in three library visits in the county involved logging onto a library computer. In Cumberland and Sagadahoc counties, it was roughly one in eight, according to survey data from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences.

The area’s economic need compelled the communities to collectively authorize borrowing roughly $2.5 million to fund construction of the network, designed by Pioneer Broadband, a Houlton-based company that last year installed a fiber network in that city.

A separate company will operate the network itself, taking a different approach than Islesboro, which decided to contract with one provider, GWI, to operate its fiber network. Downeast will contract with an operator that will allow other providers to join onto the network and offer service to customers with plans that, ideally, will compete on price.

It’s still uncertain what service will cost on the Calais and Baileyville network. It will depend on the companies offering service over the lines, though Jordan said a market survey found 97 percent of customers would be willing to pay $55 a month for speeds of 50 megabits per second for both downloads and uploads.