Nearly 100 Franklin County residents gathered in Farmington on a recent cold night, some from more than 50 miles away, to hear the results of a study about how the county can increase rural broadband.
Charlie Woodworth, executive director of the Greater Franklin Development Council, says it's the county's biggest growth issue.
“If we're going to have a future, we need to grow, we have to attract young families, people have to be able to work,” he says. “Yes it affects education, health care, but it all distills down to economic development. It's critical for rural Maine.”
It's not just Franklin County. Lack of broadband — cable, satellite, fiber, DSL — is affecting areas from real estate sales and tourism to in-and-out migration in rural areas across Maine.
At a Jan. 10 legislative hearing on a $100 million bond issue that would help fund broadband initiatives, representatives of 16 organizations and businesses testified in support, including MaineHealth and Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, AARP and the Maine Farmland Trust.
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, says he recognizes $100 million is a lot of money. “But I wanted to make a strong case that access to rural high-speed internet is as important as access to roads and bridges,” he says. “So I made a proposal on the same scale as what we pay for highways.”
Berry's District 55 includes Bowdoinham, Bowdoin and Richmond, but parts of it don't have internet access.
“I'd love it if we could get to the point where we're talking about competition, getting the best deals,” he says. “But right now we're talking about people not having any access at all.”
Bob Carlton, a self-employed forestry consultant, spends a lot of time in the woods, but he still needs high-speed internet to do his job. The Freeman Township resident has DSL, but it's too slow for much of the work he has to do.
“I never do anything big or important [on the computer] in the middle of the day,” he says. He has to outsource maps that he would normally do himself. He tried to take online courses for required certification, but internet crashes forced him to travel for training.
In Oquossoc, restaurant owner Kate Williamson says lack of internet is an everyday conversation among business owners, tourists and residents of the Rangeley Lakes region.
She's owned The Gingerbread House for 21 years, and over the last four or five years, the issue has escalated. “[Visitors] will say, 'I'd stay three weeks, but I have to work and can't because I don't have internet,'” she says.
Williamson, a member of the Rangeley Economic Opportunity Commission, says a constant effort has improved internet in some areas, but not at a pace to match the need. “We're a tourist destination, that's how I live, and so do a lot of restaurants and businesses,” she says. “The population alone can't support the businesses here. We want them here for three weeks, not a week, but if they can't [get internet], they leave. We see it over and over.”
At the Jan. 31 meeting in Farmington, there were stories of middle and high school students trying to get internet to do their homework while sitting in a car outside McDonald's, which residents say has more reliable wifi than many homes. The lack of access affects health care, jobs that go unfilled and Realtors who can't sell property because it's not connected.
At the Legislature's Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs' bond hearing, the theme was the same.
Ellen Stern Griswold of the Maine Farmland Trust testified that Maine's 8,000 farms are a key economic component, with $13.8 billion in total sales, $5.1 billion value-added, and contributing 78,656 jobs.
“One of the biggest impediments we see to farmers growing and diversifying their businesses is the lack of access to reliable, high-speed internet service,” she said.
Large businesses are also affected. Online furniture retailer Wayfair, which employs 700 in Bangor and Brunswick, has piloted a work-from-home program “that is exceeding expectations,” says Mike O'Hanlon, vice president of government and industry relations.
“As we look to expand the program, there are areas in rural Maine that would be fertile for attracting talent but lack the broadband connectivity required to do the job,” he says.
“It's a math problem, that's all it is,” says Brian Lippold of the James W. Sewall Co., which conducted a study of Franklin County's broadband needs.
Broadband businesses have to do what's financially feasible, and they need a minimum number of potential customers to justify the investment.
Part of the solution are federal and state subsidies that encourage companies to hook up low-population areas. But none is a total solution.
Maine Fiber Co.'s “three ring binder” high-capacity fiber cable passes through the southern end of the county, but it's the highway — the exit ramps still have to be added, says Heather Johnson, director of ConnectME, the state program to extend broadband coverage.
ConnectME considers 10 Mbps (megabits per second) for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads to be the minimum effective broadband speed. The Federal Communications Commission recommends 12 to 25 Mbps for a household of more than one person. Many of the state's rural users who have broadband are well below ConnectME's minimum recommended speed. Carlton, the forester, for instance, has 1.5 Mbps upload with his DSL service.
ConnectME has awarded 145 infrastructure grants totaling $11.8 million and nine planning grants totaling $372,000 since it began in 2006, and is in the final stage of a multi-year rural development plan.
Somerset and Piscataquis counties, like Franklin, have finished studies and are looking at next steps. Other counties, like Washington, are doing it town-by-town.
“The technology exists. The technology isn't a variable, it's a value-for-dollar equation,” she says. Each community has to decide on a solution, she adds. “What do these communities need? What do they care about?”
It's also an education issue — making sure that people understand the possibilities that internet access brings.
Johnson asks: “How do you show the value? If you're a senior and want to stay in your home, how does it help you connect with your health care? Your family? What's the economic impact to businesses and individuals?”
According to BroadbandNow, 97.3% of Mainers have access to internet of 10 Mbps or more, but 13% are underserved as far as quality of connection.
“As a state we have made a lot of progress, but still have considerable work to do,” Johnson says. “Improving the infrastructure has taken longer than expected and the market needs have also increased.”
Connect America funding, private investment, ConnectME grants and changes by providers “will yield baseline improvements by end of year,” she says.
Berry says the LD 520 bond issue, which would go to voters if approved by the 128th Legislature, would help strengthen ConnectME efforts, which now translate to about a dollar and change per state resident.
While dozens of companies of all sizes provide basic internet in Maine, some are exploring ways to increase service, or invest in technology that will make service more feasible. Those contacted say they are always looking for ways to connect customers.
In rural markets, the evaluation comes down to the number of potential customers, proximity to the existing network and economic feasibility.
The negative economic impact of poor broadband is “one of the few topics everyone agrees on,” Johnson says. “The questions are how much and when. We're trying to create a framework for those answers.”
Communities will have to be creative and the answers will come from “real grassroots, common-sense” assessment of need, she says.
In Millinocket, that means starting its own broadband utility, which would require the state's help. Michael Faloon of Our Katahdin testified at the state hearing that “access to affordable capital will be our greatest challenge in bringing the highest speeds to the Katahdin region, hampering our ability to attract new businesses and residents.”
In Franklin County, the Farmington meeting was the culmination of a year-long effort, during which Woodworth and Carlton visited all 22 towns, some as many as four times, pitching the study, which got $43,000 from ConnectME, and asking towns to contribute.
Every town ultimately did, as did the unorganized territories and Livermore Falls, which is in Androscoggin County but shares a school district with Jay.
“This is a very conservative part of the state,” Faloon says. “They want to cut, cut, cut budgets. But we have every town in the county willing to be involved.”
The plan shows what each community would have to pay per person, though federal and state money would take care of some of that cost.
The next step is for the communities to figure out where to go from here. He hopes towns with similar needs will band together instead of going it alone.
Woodworth said that buy-in and the grassroots effort, spurred by residents who desperately want broadband, is what has made it successful so far.
“They've all invested and that speaks to the common vision,” he says. “We have to have it for our future, our future growth, our economy.”