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September 8, 2014
MB20th: Telecom

Growth engine: Faster broadband seen as essential for Maine's economy

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Fletcher Kittredge, CEO of GWI, at the broadband provider's data center in Portland. The data center stores GWI's network, telecommunication and server equipment.

Telecom timeline

1971: Internet starts

1991: World Wide Web goes live

1993: Mosaic graphical browser stimulates web use

1994: Biddeford Internet Corp. (dba as GWI) starts

1995: Microsoft launches Internet Explorer browser; Amazon.com starts online shopping

1996: Telecommunications Act of 1996 (includes the Internet in broadcasting and spectrum allotment)

1997: Bill Clinton's inauguration is live on the Internet; first news blogs are introduced

2000: Internet bubble in the early 2000s spawns thousands of start-up companies, many of which later fail; cell phone technology goes viral

2002: TV standard changes from analog to digital; satellite radio starts

2004: Broadband reaches half of U.S. home

2007: Presidential debates on YouTube

2011: President Barack Obama uses Twitter and Facebook to promote his 2012 reelection campaign

2012: Maine's Three Ring Binder network is completed

2014: Rockport announces Maine's first municipal gigabit fiber optic network

Sources: Fletcher Kittredge/GWI, Indiana Dept. of Education, Wikipedia

Fletcher Kittredge: A Maine Internet pioneer

GWI CEO Fletcher Kittredge started his Internet career in 1984 in Cambridge, Mass., at a private laboratory called Bolt Beranek and Newman (now BBN Technologies), where he focused on a defense distribution contract for the Internet. In 1993, when the Mosaic web browser — credited as the first graphical browser, hit the market, Kittredge, who says he never felt at home in Cambridge, saw an opportunity to return to his home state of Maine.

There also was plenty of opportunity to help form Maine's Internet, as he says there were virtually no Internet service providers then. The communications infrastructure was made of copper wire rather than today's fiber optics, and Internet access was through regular phone lines, also called dial-up Internet access, using a square box called a modem.

"We still didn't know what Internet service would look like," says Kittredge. "We thought it would be small and local [to Biddeford], but almost immediately it expanded to Portland. Then in 1997 we went statewide."

In the early days, he recalls, Internet service was almost entirely residential. In 1996, faster broadband speeds were available via cable TV modems from Casco Cable, which is now Comcast. That's when big customers started using the Internet.

"As dial-up went away, 65% of the Internet was to business," he says. "Email was really big in the early days of the Internet. Now it has died down, and Facebook and Twitter are active." LISTSERVs, email lists and other software helped groups of people organize.

Kittredge says broadband started to take off as early as 1996, but it really took five to six years to really bloom, and then the Internet bubble came in the early 2000s.

One big change nationally came with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which for the first time included the Internet in broadcasting and spectrum allotment and allowed for media cross-ownership. "Deregulation was the primary result of the Telecommunication Act [for us]," says Fletcher. "We got into the telephone [service] business about eight years later."

An even bigger difference resulting from the act was the reconsolidation of the telecommunications providers. Kittredge explains that 20 years ago, there were 20 cable companies in Maine. "Today there's one [big one], and it's not a good thing," he says, adding that Time Warner Cable has a 92% market share in Maine. "Deregulation ultimately led to a situation where large telephone companies had the freedom to move out of Maine."

Digital subscriber line, or DSL, technology was available from the telephone company to provide faster speeds in the early 2000s, and later in the decade Internet via cable TV lines became more pervasive. GWI is an Internet service wholesaler to cable TV companies and owns some lines in places throughout the state.

With the recent addition of a gigabit Internet in Rockland, a project in which GWI was a partner, "Towns feel the need to do it themselves," he says. That's especially true of towns like Sanford, which is considering a municipal fiber network because the Three Ring Binder does not go there.

GWI has grown to $17 million in revenues this year, is profitable and has 65 employees.

Going forward, Kittredge foresees a day when communications products will be so advanced, pervasive and ingrained in society that people may not know whether they are on a conference call or actually in a room with the other party. "We are nowhere near the end of this," he says. "I expect driverless cars in five to 10 years and remote telehealth."

— LORI VALIGRA

Rural Maine: Internet under the stars

Pulling into the local library's parking lot at 6 a.m. one frigid winter day — the local Internet café didn't open for a couple more hours — I didn't hold much hope that the wireless router would be turned on. But my heart lifted at the sight of exhaust steam, dimmed headlights and the telltale rectangles of laptop screen light inside several other cars already sucking up the library's connection to the outside world.

I wondered how many of them were clearing out emails of singing cats so the rest of their emails would download sequentially until they saw they were able to respond to their business emails.

The scene reminded me of the late-night drive-in movies our family took in when I was a kid, parked among like-minded individuals, staring at a movie screen and looking up occasionally at the stars. Only that was child's play, and this was business, or what trying to run a home business was like in the early 2000s in rural Maine.

At the time, I was using something called "tethered broadband," which no longer exists, and for good reasons. It was faster than dial-up over my landline phone, but required using a special connection device between my laptop computer and my flip-top cell phone to access the Internet at still-slow cell phone speeds. At the time, Verizon's landline service (now FairPoint) did not provide Internet to the willywacks where I lived part-time (the rest of the time was in Massachusetts), nor did Time Warner or anyone else with faster than dial-up speeds.

So if someone emailed a high-resolution photo, a large document, or a video they found amusing (a trait that runs rampant among my family and friends), my tethered broadband simply froze. To access emails, I had to drive around, either to the nearest Verizon cell tower (my cell phone only gets one bar where I live, and even that involves leaning toward the southwest window of my house and aiming the phone between the trees), or drive around seeking an open Internet café or a library that had left its wireless on. Each option involved about a 12-mile drive.

When I started spending more time in Maine around 2010 and moved here in 2013, that routine broke me. Both the phone company and the cable TV company offered high-speed Internet access, and I chose the latter.

And I found that in rural Maine, there can be more than one happy ending. A recent storm knocked out my Internet service for a day. As on autopilot, I headed for a library several towns away. It was closed, but had the foresight to put tables and chairs outside for such occasions. I sat among the other wireless interlopers, opened my laptop and felt a tinge of nostalgia.

— LORI VALIGRA

Nowadays, if your office Internet connection fails, even briefly, all work grinds to a halt. But only 20 years ago, that wasn't the case. IBM Selectric typewriters continued to drum out business letters and dial-up phones still could reach the outside world.

The Internet, and more specifically the World Wide Web, disrupted the insular world of private office networks in the 1990s. (The World Wide Web uses browsers like Firefox and Google Chrome to access Web page information over the Internet, which is a massive infrastructure of networks. Other ways to access the Internet include Usenet news groups.) Like the early trans-Atlantic teletype communications, the Internet is making the world smaller and more accessible. It is critical to fast financial transactions, a broad education and all aspects of business and communication.

The Internet, combined with wireless networks and devices, stands out among the communications technologies that have changed all aspects of life in Maine in the past 20 years.

But Maine's broad geography, sparse population and limited financial resources made such high-speed communications more of a luxury than a household or business necessity 20 years ago, and the state continues to lag most of the rest of the country in broadband connectivity and use, according to several studies. One report, by Ookla NetMetrics, raised local eyebrows earlier this year when it placed Maine 49th in terms of the quality and accessibility of high-speed broadband Internet access.

"In 1994, there was very primitive dial-up access to the Internet, and getting connected took a while," Fletcher Kittredge, CEO of Biddeford Internet Corp. (which does business as GWI), recalls. His company also is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. "The Internet was interesting then, but not totally ingrained into people's lives. Now it's a big deal if you don't have power. The sum of stored human knowledge is out there on a communications network. Most businesses depend on access to computer resources."

"We were right on the cusp of the use of the Web and the use of email," says Jon Whitney, who founded Mainebiz in 1994 and was at the publication through 1999. "I can remember we had dial-up service … [but] I don't recall using email or the Web in any significant way while I was there." He adds that the publication's computers were used for design, layout and writing, but not for advertising or communication. "We were just beginning that," he says.

Today, the publication's business readers interact through the Internet, mobile phones, Skype, social media and other means locally, nationally and internationally.

Beyond shoe phones

Over the past 20 years, communications technology has leapfrogged beyond the wildest predictions in the 1990s. A January 2013 U.S. News & World Report retrospective story about the year 1990 quoted former Bell Telephone Laboratories scientist Hubert Heffner predicting a virtually "cashless" economy. Heffner foresaw a computer that could automatically check a person's bank balance or make money transfers, and a telephone with a display that could tie in to a regional computer so that a user could receive his or her bank balance, the weather report, stock quotes or airline schedules. Today's smart phone functions far outstrip those predictions.

The first true smartphone, IBM Corp's Simon, came out in 1994 for the handsome price of up to $1,099, looked like a brick, weighed 18 ounces and had a black-and-white touch screen. Lucky users got 60 minutes of battery time before recharging. Simon stayed on the market for six months, and only around 50,000 units were sold.

Today, it's hard to walk down any street in Maine and not see most people cradling a smart phone, which for many is their primary, if not only, communications device. In terms of size, aesthetics and functions, Apple Computer Inc.'s iPhone, first released in 2007, soundly beats Simon. It topped the 500 million unit sales mark in March, is half the height, a little narrower, a fraction of Simon's depth and weighs less than 4 ounces.

Internet speeds also have soared. Dial-up access at 48 kilobits per second was prevalent when Mainebiz and GWI started, but that has jumped to up to 10 megabits per second download speeds in the fastest broadband areas of Maine, mostly among the southern Maine coastal counties. But there's a rub: that's still some 20% to 40% slower than the U.S. average, according to a broadband position paper Kittredge wrote on ways to improve Maine's low ranking nationwide in deploying broadband.

Broadband = jobs?

Kittredge, a computer scientist by training, ruminates about the power of the Internet, which he's helped expand in Maine over the past 20 years through participation in the $26 million Three Ring Binder project, among others. That project, completed in 2012, was Maine's effort to bring an open access, fiber optic network spanning 1,100 miles to homes, businesses, libraries and other locations throughout the state, particularly in rural and disadvantaged areas. It extends up the coast from south of Portland to Fort Kent and back down through Rumford and again to south of Portland, with two crossover points, thus forming the Down East ring, the Northern ring and the Southern ring. GWI, the University of Maine System, and Telecom Strategies & Facilities built the network, and Maine Fiber Co. operates it.

According to Kittredge, speedy broadband connections over fiber optic cable have been driven primarily by economic development. "York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc and Waldo counties — up the coast — is where 50% of the state's economic activity is, and that's where the [Three Ring Binder] network is strongest," he says. In his report, he noted that as of January, Maine's broadband was significantly slower (about 7Mbps in most Maine counties versus more than 20Mbps in Boston), more expensive and less available than in other states, putting Maine at an economic disadvantage.

What's clear from his and others' comments is that access to the Internet in schools, at home and in the office is a sort of "Yellow Brick Road" to a better future in terms of education, jobs, pay and mobility. Inexpensive and available high-speed Internet is imperative, but Maine isn't there yet, not by a long shot.

A December 2013 report called "Broadband: The Road to Maine's Future," by the Governor's Broadband Capacity Building Task Force, noted that increased broadband use and availability can save money and increase choices. The report found that 21% of economic growth in developed economies from 2004 to 2009 can be attributed to the Internet, 97% of American consumers look online for purchases and start-up businesses can save $16,500 annually by using Internet-based services. It also pointed to more affordable health care and more control over that care by individuals, student access to the best teachers and more responsive government.

And while Kittredge and others say the Internet has to be fast, affordable and available to become pervasive in Maine, the report contended that Maine doesn't have enough high tech businesses, so the Internet here is underutilized: 59% of Maine's 141,000 small- and intermediate-sized businesses don't have a website, the task force found.

Hope on the horizon

Still, islands of speedy Internet that could more squarely usher Maine into the digital age are emerging. Rockport recently announced the first municipal gigabit fiber optic network in the state, with Orono and Old Town planning to follow suit. Sanford and Islesboro also are considering similar municipal networks.

"It is widely recognized that Maine's economic future is bound up with our Internet infrastructure," Rockport Town Manager Richard Bates said in a statement when the gigabit network was announced, "whether you are a small business looking to sell Maine goods worldwide, or a technologically focused company working with the newest media-based technologies."

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