Browsing on the Back Roads

Nearly everyone agrees that Maine is way behind when it comes to high-speed broadband. The reasons why are a matter of much dispute.

By Jeff Clark

Want to start an argument among Internet experts? Ask them why Maine is perceived as being at the tail end of the Web revolution, the dead end of the Net, the black hole of data transmission. They may cite ancient infrastructure (“Copper wires,” they hiss.), or lack of government support (“Tax incentives? Fat chance.”), or always, invariably, demographics. Mainers are by and large too damn old and set in their ways, or so goes the claim (“Yankee stubborness”).

The influence of Maine’s older population has become an article of faith in the larger broadband discussion. Commentators repeatedly cite a perceived lack of interest among the state’s large elder population as a major reason, if not the reason, for the lower-than-average subscriber numbers in areas already served by broadband. They also argue that Maine’s rural nature, a lack of tax incentives and subsidies for investing in network expansion and improvements, the cost of service, and a general digital illiteracy also contribute to the state’s poor Web-savvy reputation.

In other words, Maine is old, poor, thinly populated, and ignorant, or so the arguments go, and that’s the reason the state has miserable Internet quality and accessibility, ranking 49th in the nation by some measures. Or is it? South Dakota, population 844,877 (2013 census estimate), for one example, has demographics not all that different from Maine, population 1,328,302 — residents 65 and older: 14.7 percent versus Maine’s 17 percent; median household income: $49,091 versus Maine’s $48,219, with a population density barely a quarter of Maine’s 43 people per square mile. Yet it ranks among the top states for broadband access and quality, while Maine ranks 49th. Requests to explain the dichotomy bring silence or at best speculation that perhaps South Dakota’s population is more concentrated in towns and cities than Maine’s. It isn’t.

A September 2013 Gizmodo survey of Internet speeds put Maine firmly in the slow lane . . . sort of. The majority of Maine counties crawled along at download speeds ranging from 7.3 to 10.9 megabits per second (Mbps) — nice, but well below the national average of 18.2 Mbps. But the southern coastal counties with the largest chunk of Maine’s population clocked in at a more respectable 10.9 to 14.6 Mbps download speed. (This writer routinely sees speeds of 16.3 Mbps download and 4.35 Mbps upload at his home in Bath.)

Meanwhile, the Federal Commu–nications Commission defines broadband as 4 megabits download and 1 megabit upload, a standard that any kid trying to play Call of Duty: Black Op will say was obsolete even before Mark Zuckerberg dreamed up Facebook.

Asked about her reaction to Maine’s 49th place ranking, Kate Carpenter, executive director of the Maine Technology Users Group (MTUG), raises a skeptical eyebrow at some of the more doom-and-gloom pronouncements. “You can look at the data a lot of different ways,” she says. “I’m not entirely certain the [Gizmodo ranking] tells the whole story.”

Carpenter allows that Maine can be a difficult state to work in from an Internet service provider point of view, but she points out that more than 90 percent of Maine households and businesses already have access to high-speed Internet. The problem is that only 75 percent of the potential customers actually sign up for service, a comparatively low “take rate,” as it’s called in the business, that throws up a huge red flag for service providers looking to improve infrastructure or expand coverage. Indeed, it was at a recent MTUG meeting that Internet service executives placed some of the blame for the state’s low quality of Internet service on residents and businesses’ “old Yankee mentality” — Mainers aren’t demanding it, in other words, because they are resistant to change.

But in Carpenter’s mind, the reason for the relatively low take rate is less about generational ignorance and Yankee stubbornness and more about low income levels and lack of awareness about the benefits the Internet can offer for both individuals and businesses. “Maine has a different and difficult economy,” she points out. “We have to be a lot more cost conscious up here.”

“Studies have shown that price is definitely a factor,” agrees Curt Sweet, an independent telecommunications consultant who cofounded MTUG to bring together individuals interested in the Maine telecommunications and computer networking industries. “If broadband is available and people aren’t buying it, it proves people are making a decision not to use it. It raises the question of whether we need a lifeline subsidy for people too poor to afford it.”

For Sweet, Internet connectivity “is more important than the landline telephone these days, and it’s just as important as the telephone was in the 1950s, when government was forcing the old Ma Bell monopoly to wire the whole countryside for phone service, not just the cities.” Broadband is about more than streaming another movie on Netflix, he adds. “Telemedicine alone is an enormous factor that hasn’t even begun to be explored,” he says. “People can stay at home and Skype their doctor and check vital signs and do consultations. Education is being completely upended by the Web. We’re already seeing proposals to equip every student from kindergarten up with electronic devices and finance it by shifting to electronic textbooks rather than paper and ink. Consumers have already shown their willingness to shift their purchasing activity to the Web, as the UPS debacle last Christmas showed.”

Add to that the growing use of cloud computing, where businesses and individuals use the Internet to store, manage, and process data, rather than a local server or a personal computer. Even five years ago, businesses thought they had to operate their own servers and hire people to manage them and the accompanying software. Cloud computing “doesn’t require any kind of hardware presence on site,” Sweet notes. But it does require fast, reliable Internet connections, to the point where some of Sweet’s clients insist on having two separate and distinct Internet providers to back each other up.

Which raises another issue. If Internet access is so vital and if it will become even more so in the near future, why isn’t it treated the way electricity, telephone, and water are, as it is in South Dakota, whose state government recently used a $20.6 million federal grant to expand broadband fiber networks by 400 additional miles? Why isn’t it a regulated public utility?

“Politics,” is Wayne Jortner’s one-word answer. As senior counsel in the Maine Public Advocate’s Office, Jortner led the fight to force Fairpoint Communications to extend high-speed Internet service to rural areas of Maine. “A lot of business forces oppose regulation in that arena,” he explains. “Theoretically, the Internet comes under the control of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but the FCC is a political animal. In the early oughts it made a ruling interpreting data transfer through the Internet in such a way that they couldn’t regulate it.”

The Fairpoint situation was unique, Jortner says, because it needed Maine Public Utility Commission approval to absorb the Verizon telephone business in Maine. It allowed Jortner’s office to intervene and negotiate conditions requiring the company to expand high-speed service from the 63 percent of customers that Verizon had to 87 percent.

“We’re still falling farther and farther behind,” Jortner says. “We have old infrastructure, old technology, an older population. The real answer is fiber optic cable, and that’s why we’re falling behind. Fairpoint is not installing new fiber.” Maine’s outdated, traditional copper-wire infrastructure dates back decades and would require massive investment to upgrade.

Fiber optic is the gold standard in Internet access, allowing very fast, very high quality links. “If your link is copper [wire], once you get beyond three miles from the access point, you get very slow speeds,” Jortner says.

The so-called Three Ring Binder project, which used federal and private money to construct a network of three loops of fiber optic cable in western, northern, and eastern Maine, is part of the answer. It serves as the “middle mile” in the Internet network, the providing access points between the line — the “last mile,” in service provider parlance — going into a home or business and the massive data pipelines that link the nation. The $31.7 million project started in 2010 and was finished two years later, spanning 110,000 households, 38 government facilities, and some 600 other institutions. Local service providers can lease capacity on the network to improve service to their customers.

“The higher speed makes a huge difference in economic development,” Jortner explains. “If you have a lot of employees requiring constant access, for example, you need that large capacity that the Three Ring Binder project allows. It certainly makes Maine in general and its rural areas much more attractive.”

The project’s fiber network offers speed, capacity, and affordability. “Even a small business probably couldn’t survive on 3 megabits,” says Phil Lindley, executive director of ConnectME, a state agency devoted to bringing broadband to all of Maine and educating Mainers about its role. “A school would need 10 or even 50 megabits. Right now, 45 percent of Maine schools have at least 10, and 55 percent have 20 or better.”

Lindley also strongly supports the economic development aspect of the project. “I’ve had resort owners tell me more than once that their guests stay longer if they have broadband access,” he says. “It’s an important factor for them.”

Lindley estimates that 93.1 percent of Maine households have access to basic broadband. He doesn’t buy the argument that cost is the major reason for the low usage rate. “The biggest barrier is lack of digital literacy,” he insists. A significant proportion of Mainers don’t realize what they can do with the Internet, from researching jobs to accessing government services to taking online college courses through the University of Maine System, he says.

If the vast majority of Mainers already have access, why worry about that last 7 percent? “Broadband is your base for everything — education, healthcare, economic development, you name it,” says Susan Corbett, owner and CEO of Axiom Technologies in Machias. “Everyone needs it.” Corbett’s company uses a variety of technologies to extend broadband service to Washington County’s scattered population and small towns.

The Three Ring Binder network has made a huge difference, she says. “Back in 2006, Verizon told me it would cost me $30,000 a month to upgrade my service,” she recalls. “Now it’s $800 a month. That puts rural areas on a level playing field.”

Corbett’s dedication to universal access echoes Lindley’s own zeal on the topic. “There are still 40,000 homes in Maine that don’t have broadband,” she says. “That cripples microbusinesses; they have no way to sell their products over the Internet or contact customers. Broadband is the economic driver for rural areas. It’s a driver for the entire state.”

“We should worry about them just like we worried about installing universal phone service in the 1950s,” Lindley says. “It’s an important public policy issue. Anyone who wants it should be able to get it.”


Maine Technology Users Group

Many of the topics discussed in this article will be debated at the 2014 MTUG Telecommunications and Computer Networking Conference, May 29, in Portland.

ConnectME Authority

This state agency aims to facilitate the universal availability of broadband. Its website is a valuable source of information on broadband in Maine, including free workshops and a list of providers by town.