This week was particularly busy for OTELCO where community broadband in Maine is concerned. We had back to back engagements on the topic, starting with the unorganized territories of Penobscot County and ending in the city of Portland.
A Need for Speed in Argyle
On Tuesday, May 21, OTELCO conducted a public information meeting for the citizens of Argyle Township, ME. Argyle Township is about 20 miles north of Bangor in Penobscot County, and is one of Maine’s Unorganized Territories (UT). After word of our efforts to build FTTP in neighboring Alton, we were approached by county leaders about doing the same in Argyle Township. It was decided to seek a planning grant from the ConnectME Authority to determine if such a project is feasible, and the informational meeting was one of the first steps in the process. The intent of the meeting was partially to gauge public interest and mostly to learn about how the community uses the Internet and where, if any, the inadequacies in service are.
Argyle Township is extremely rural, with about 134 homes over 26.7 square miles. About 30 people came out for the meeting, representing 22 of the 134 locations. Almost all of the attendees agreed that their current connection couldn’t meet their broadband needs, which spanned from e-commerce to working from home. Furthermore, the majority of attendees found that mapping results claiming there were multiple providers in the area providing speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps were inaccurate.
Getting a Bead on Broadband
The next morning, the conversation continued at a Portland Press Herald Breakfast Forum on broadband in Maine. Marketing and Public Relations Manager, Tracy Scheckel was a forum panelist, along with GWI CEO Fletcher Kittridge and the ConnectME Authority’s Executive Director Peggy Schaffer. The panel touched on a lot of important issues surrounding the effort to expand Broadband in Maine, and the unique challenges Maine faces.
When asked about Maine’s challenges, Peggy Schaffer summed them up as distance and people. “We have a lot of distance and not a lot of people.” That lack of population makes it discourages private industry from investing in rural broadband infrastructure where it’s difficult to make a good business case to do so.
According to Fletcher Kitteridge, when it comes to private providers, “all of Maine can be divided into three parts when it comes to broadband”:
- Places that are densely populated, where the private sector wants to invest because there is a clear return on investment (ROI)
- Places that are populated enough that the private industry isn’t super interested, but will invest in because there will be an eventual ROI
- Places so sparsely populated that a provider cannot make a business case to invest without some government funding
There are at least two pieces of legislation in Augusta proposing bonding to fund broadband infrastructure and passing either would certainly help the cause. Since the audience was mostly folks from the Portland area, Tracy emphasized the importance of the entire state coming together to support a bond for broadband infrastructure.
She commented, “When you have decent broadband and multiple choices, it’s easy to lose sight of the folks who don’t. It’s important to remember that broadband is infrastructure and is as important as electricity and telephone. From both a workforce development perspective and as an economic development tool, supporting an infrastructure bond will benefit the entire state, not just the rural areas.”