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March 27, 2018

Cranberry Isles' $1.3M broadband initiative seen as a model for Maine

Courtesy / The Island Institute Installation of a broadband tower in the Cranberry Islands. The town of Cranberry Isles received at $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Community Connect Grant Program to pay for its improved broadband network that provides speeds equal to New York City.

The town of Cranberry Isles has received a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Community Connect Grant Program for construction of its broadband network. With that support, what was once a community-funded project will now be funded by the USDA grant.

The grant will cover most of the cost of the project involving three of the municipality’s five islands — Islesford and Great Cranberry Island as well as seasonal homes on Sutton Island. Axiom Technologies of Machias is building the network under a contract with the town.

So far, access to the network has been provided to all of Islesford’s year-round residents. Completion of the network on Great Cranberry and Sutton Island is expected by the middle of June.

“The Cranberry Isles will now have the same quality internet as New York City,” said Mark Ouellette, COO of Axiom Technologies, a partner in the broadband project. “That's the kind of internet we're talking about; that's how to move communities forward."

The town’s $1.2 million investment in broadband infrastructure was a multi-year process to bring to connect the three island communities with internet speeds that exceed 100/100 mpbs (download/upload megabits per second speeds). In February, the first resident on Little Cranberry Island (Islesford) was connected with broadband. Today, Islesford is 100% connected through its new fiber-wireless network, allowing any resident that signs up for the service to access internet speeds on par with major metropolitan cities.

Phase 1 of the project to connect Islesford is now complete, and the second phase will connect Sutton and Great Cranberry Islands by the end of the summer, according to a news release from The Island Institute.

Community-driven solution, not just for islands

Photo / The Island Institute
The Town of Cranberry Isles' broadband initiative is a community-driven project.

The Island Institute is currently supporting 38 communities to help bring better broadband to the coast of Maine through a community-based model that includes feasibility studies, island broadband working groups, negotiations with providers, and conferences.

The Rockland-based organization reports that in the past few years, island and coastal community members all along Maine's coastline have been sharing stories of struggling with inadequate internet service. Lacking reliable and fast internet access, many of these islands have identified access to broadband as an essential tool for encouraging economic growth and attracting year-round residents.

In rural and coastal communities that have invested in broadband, studies have shown that common themes have emerged:

  • In health care, high-speed access allows hospitals and medical facilities to support online portals for patient information, e-visits, remote care (telehealth), and helps recruit doctors and families to the area.
  • In education, schools are able to provide online classes that allow flexibility, customization, and access from home, as well as the ability to remotely help kids with homework.
  • Economically, benefits include an increase in housing prices and sales, higher median incomes, the ability to attract new businesses and residents, and higher revenue from tourism since high-speed connections inspire visitors to stay longer.

“Closing the digital divide by connecting all of Maine with broadband infrastructure is one of the few economic development challenges facing Maine that we both know how to, and can actually, solve in the next 10 years,” said Stephenie MacLagan, community development officer at The Island Institute. “Success means ensuring that Maine communities have internet speeds at or above the national average by 2025.”

The Cranberry Islands as a model for state

Photo / The Island Institute
The Island Institute sees the Cranberry Isles' broadband initiative as a model for coastal and rural Maine.

In its news release, The Island Institute reports on how the Cranberry Islands might offer a model for communities looking to sustain themselves for the future, with broadband as an essential step in this process.” Here's the report:

“When the Town of Cranberry Isles Broadband Communications Working Group first began to gather information about bringing broadband access to the islands, residents lamented how lack of access contributed to the inability to sustain their lives on the islands, whether in regard to jobs, education, health, or community service. As one year-round Islesford resident noted in the working group’s community survey, ‘I had to stop work, my telecommuting job, because my internet speed was too slow.’

“Internet on the Cranberries was slow; slow enough to make basic business functions difficult. With the national average internet speed in 2014 being 30/10mbps, many residents felt their future viability was contingent on improving their internet connectivity. ‘How do we keep a population without access to something that has become so essential?’ questioned another Islesford resident.

“On Great Cranberry Island, the community recently reopened their school in 2016 to help attract new families to the area. However, the homework gap created by lack of reliable internet access has created ongoing challenges for the school and its students. As one student living on Great Cranberry reflected, ‘I can't access the Google Docs homework system from home because it uses too much data, so I go to the library, but it isn't open at night.’

“These sentiments were echoed by many and captured in the working group's report for a town meeting last spring. At that meeting, the town overwhelmingly approved, with a vote of 54 to 2, to fund up to $1.2 million for a high-speed fiber-wireless network to bring broadband to three of its islands. Based on per-premise costs of similar networks, and the high cost of telecommunication services customers currently bear, it is very likely that most property owners will actually save money as a result of this project, despite any increase in taxes.

“Throughout the process to connect its communities, the Cranberry Isles broadband working group researched a number of technology options and chose to partner with Axiom Technologies, which is contributing about 15% of the total cost of construction. Once a broadband solution was identified, the working group also investigated funding from a variety of sources and received $10,000 from The Island Institute for consulting services on the infrastructure design and financial model, as well as a $70,000 grant from the ConnectME Authority to help with the infrastructure build out.”

Next steps in the process

The installation work on the Cranberry Isles isn't quite over yet. The Sutton Island community is now striving to bring the same level of service to their island, according to The Island Institute.

Originally, a wireless broadcast of the internet service was expected on this island, to avoid the construction of a fiber network. While the speeds of the newly designed project would now be above the national average, the construction could cost $150,000 more. This additional cost will be up for a town vote this month.

Access to broadband is just part of the equation for improving internet connectivity — affordability and adoption are other aspects to consider. The working group continues to support Axiom’s service packages and other programs that make internet service affordable.

This spring and summer, Axiom's nonprofit arm will also conduct workshop opportunities to improve digital literacy. These workshops will instruct residents on how they can benefit from the improved internet speeds — from social enrichment like video calling family or coworkers to business efficiencies like building a website and bringing lobster business bookkeeping online.

“Mainers need reliable, fast internet that will support both large and small businesses,” said Briana Warner, economic development officer at the Island Institute. “Merely being connected isn’t good enough to increase economic stability and activity or attract and retain new families. Maine can’t settle for 49th best.”

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