People and businesses in rural western and northern Maine were pretty sure they were never going to see the latest communications technology arrive in their communities if they waited for the dominant telephone company to invest in low-return areas. Not wanting to be left behind, they started looking out for their own interests.
That story describes Mainers of the 1890s fighting to bring the first telephone service to their communities — and Mainers today fighting to make sure they have the broadband infrastructure and speed needed to compete in the modern economy.
Some 127 years apart, the challenge is the same and it is known as the “last-mile” issue. Phone companies will always make it a priority to expand on roads that have 100 homes per mile versus, say, one home per mile. Rural folks on that road with one house per mile will always be the last mile connected.
Our company in Maine, OTELCO, has a unique perspective on these issues. We trace our roots to 1889 when Mainers in Bar Mills formed the very first independent telephone company in New England, the Saco River Telegraph & Telephone Co., and to a few years later in 1899 when the Pine Tree Telephone and Telegraph Co. was formed in New Gloucester, where our company still is headquartered today. Their purpose, along with other independent phone companies’, was to make sure rural Maine communities “all the way from Kittery to the Canadian border” were not left behind.
Today, we face similar challenges when it comes to making sure rural Maine communities have the broadband infrastructure and speeds they need to compete. Once again, Mainers don’t want to wait — don’t want to accept being told they will be in that last mile.
Leaders in at least a dozen Maine communities are considering whether to invest in and build municipal broadband networks. There were approximately 35 bills in the last legislative session dealing with various ways to try to address Maine’s rural broadband challenges.
As a strong, stable company that was here more than 100 years ago and plans to be here 100 years from now, here are three ideas for how rural Maine leaders can stand up for our communities again.
First, we mustn’t give up until Maine residents have nationally competitive broadband speeds. The nation’s largest fiber-to-the-home network, Verizon FiOS, delivers speeds of up to 150 megabits per second for $70 per month. Most Mainers don’t have access to that today, but we can get there.
Second, look for a dependable, trusted technology partner who is in it for the long term. The company that will help a community improve its broadband infrastructure should have the capacity to do the necessary work (trucks, crews, experience) and a track record of dependable, local customer service.
Third, expect transparency from those in a position to help solve a community’s challenges. A first step to solving broadband challenges in any community or region is doing a “gap analysis.” What exists for infrastructure today versus what needs to be built or connected and how much will it cost? Local infrastructure owners — phone, cable, fiber — should be willing to share maps and information with local stakeholders to prevent taxpayers or customers from paying to over-build or under-build necessary technology.
As was the case in the 1890s, these are not merely technology issues. They are fundamentally questions about economic opportunity.
With the proper communications infrastructure, businesses in rural communities can remain competitive and grow. With the proper infrastructure, there is no reason Maine’s beautiful rural communities cannot attract new businesses that could locate anywhere with access to broadband.
Here is what we learned based on our company’s recent decision to provide 10 gigabit service over the northern ring of Maine Fiber Co.’s Three Ring Binder.
Dan Sullivan, IT manager at Woodland Pulp LLC and St. Croix Tissue in Baileyville, says the 10 gigabit service is “crucial to our business now and into the future” because “remote support from our personal residences has become critical in supporting our 24×7 manufacturing operations.”
Rural Maine can’t afford to lose companies and employers like this. We need to work together, again, to make sure rural Maine — from Kittery to the Canadian border — doesn’t get defined by others as the “last” place modern broadband technology will reach.
Rob Souza is a Biddeford native who started out in the trenches and climbing poles for the New England Telephone Co. in the early 1970s. He now serves as CEO of OTELCO’ publicly traded parent company, Otelco, which is based in New Gloucester and serves customers in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, western Massachusetts, West Virginia and Alabama.