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March 21, 2011 | last updated January 17, 2012 2:34 pm
2011 Business Leaders of the Year

Fiber driver | Fletcher Kittredge pushes high-speed Internet connection as a means of economic survival for Maine

Tim Greenway
Tim Greenway
Fletcher Kittredge, CEO of GWI

VIEW: Business Leaders of the Year 2011: Fletcher Kittredge

VIEW: See more Fletcher Kittredge and GWI

FLETCHER KITTREDGE

Age: 51

Favorite place outside work: "From September to May in Biddeford Pool."

Leadership icon: Bob Carroll, a French professor at UMaine, who grew Saco River Tel and Tel into a successful company. "Despite his training in the humanities, he became very good in a highly technical field and supported rural Maine. He proved you can do well by doing good."

Maine's biggest challenge: "It's change averse. ... if we don't get ahead of change, we don't have any control over what happens next."

Maine's biggest opportunity: "The Internet revolution is reaching the point where the costs, speeds and reliability of the network means distances will disappear."

Best business advice: Set aside time to think three years out. "Small steps you take today can have a huge effect in the future."

Fletcher Kittredge didn't need to read a front-page story in the New York Times in December of 1993 to know that the Internet was going to be big.

"I'd been doing research and work in it for nine years at that point," says Kittredge, who worked on Internet technology as a graduate student at Harvard and with Bolt, Beranek and Newman, a Boston-area research firm. "I saw and knew exactly what it could do; I had a clear sense of the potential. Of course I didn't realize one day I'd be walking around with a phone and computer device in my pocket …"

The rise of the Internet and its potential market applications gave Kittredge, who grew up in Arundel, more than a nascent field of expertise — it was also a way for him to come home. In June 1994, he formed the precursor to Great Works Internet in Biddeford, a telecommunications company that provided phone, dial-up and DSL service primarily in the Biddeford area. Today, GWI offers broadband and phone service throughout the state via 50 locations, employs more than 70, recently opened a suite of offices and a data center in Portland, and reported $14 million in revenue in 2010 — a record. It also made Inc. magazine's list of the top 500 fastest-growing companies last year, the third time it earned that recognition in seven years.

And Kittredge expects better times ahead, following his successful leadership of an initiative to extend broadband service to underserved parts of Maine. The Three Ring Binder project was borne of a collaboration among private business and public institutions that wanted a piece of the $4 billion the federal government was offering in stimulus funds to extend broadband service and prod economic development. Kittredge was the driving force in bringing disparate groups together and finding the $7 million application match to leverage a $25.4 million stimulus grant, awarded in December 2009.

Not that it was easy. Neither the state nor the university system — two obvious beneficiaries of expanded high-speed Internet service — had money to contribute, which meant others had to be tapped to help provide the application fee. "There were a number of carriers trying to figure out a way to kick in the money, but we could not work out control issues," Kittredge says.

An all-day meeting with stakeholders in Bangor that summer ended without a resolution and Kittredge feared the project was dead. But a meeting the following Monday with his board of directors revived both he and the effort when the directors committed to providing the $7 million.

"It was clear if [the industry] didn't have a unified voice, it wouldn't work," Kittredge says. "I called the other carriers and said we were willing to go forward with the project and that they had my promise that this would not be a GWI project."

To back that promise, a new, independent company, Maine Fiber Co., was formed to oversee the construction, maintenance and leasing of the network and provide access to any private carrier that sought to bring the enhanced service to their customers. About 26 miles of the 1,100-mile network have been finished, with 150 pegged for completion by the end of the summer, according to Emma Lishness, marketing manager for Maine Fiber Co. Three private companies have signed on as carriers and Maine Fiber is negotiating with another half dozen companies, she says.

Kittredge jokes that being the point man on the Three Ring Binder project has earned him no special treatment from Maine Fiber. "We're a customer … I give them a hard time, just like the other private carriers, asking, 'When will it be ready?'" he says.

Broad connections

Attracting new Internet customers through the Three Ring Binder project is just one way Kittredge intends to grow GWI, which saw a 17% growth in sales over the last three years. The company will continue to offer phone service throughout the state, and it started a new division, Northern Data Centers in Portland, which offers data center and cloud computing services. By opening data centers in rural parts of the state, Kittredge hopes to attract significant outside investment from large companies who depend on these facilities as Internet hubs, while at the same time providing powerful computing resources to smaller businesses without the costs associated with building capacity in house."My guess is we'll get more revenue from cloud computing than connectivity at some point in the future," he says.

In Kittredge's mind, access to high-speed Internet can drive Maine's economic growth. It's a great equalizer, allowing the state to lure companies here and attract creative professionals who can do their jobs from anywhere, as long as they have reliable Internet service. "Broadband has the ability to unlock Maine," he says. "We need a 50-megabyte connection every day for that high-level guy living in Grafton year round so he can do his job."

It pains him to see the United States rank 22nd in the world for broadband penetration in 2008 when it held the No. 5 spot in 2000. What's worse is Maine's position within the country. "We're 43rd in the nation for average Internet speeds, so we're in with the slowest of the slow," he says.

Higher speeds and greater redundancies have tremendous benefits. Kittredge points to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, the first community institution to tie into the new network. The hospital's emergency room uses its new service to connect with Maine Medical Center's on-call stroke specialist to assist in diagnoses. The upgraded service means Mid Coast can transmit large data files such as CT scans while securing patient information. "The connection has the reliability the hospital needs, and that results in better outcomes for patients," he says.

He's so convinced of the transformative powers of broadband he's put together a PowerPoint presentation titled, "A ray of economic sunshine for Maine's future: Broadband expansion provides an opportunity for growth" and is taking it on the road to emphasize the need for Maine to get ahead of the connection curve. "Broadband is vital to most businesses now, but we're at the infancy of this," he says. "It will be an absolute necessity… I deeply believe it has a transformative effect on the way we do business, how we educate ourselves and even how society organizes itself."

GWI
8 Pomerleau St., Biddeford
Founded: 1994
Employees: 70
Annual revenue: $14 million
Contact: 286-8686
www.gwi.net

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