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October 15, 2018 Focus: Midcoast & Downeast Maine

Small Machias broadband company cutting a large swath through Maine's rural areas

Photos / Courtesy Axiom Axiom Technologies promoted Mark Ouellette to CEO. Former CEO Susan Corbett now leads the nonprofit National Digital Equality Center.
Photo / Maureen Milliken Axiom Technologies, with 12 employees, operates out of 3 Water St., Machias (blue building), but has created a presence across Maine. CEO Mark Ouellette says its remote location gives the company credibility when working with other rural communities.

On a recent Thursday, Mark Ouellette, the CEO of Axiom Technologies, began the day in Millinocket, with a later meeting in Wiscasset, a quick trip up to Waterville, then another meeting in Scarborough.

Axiom, by the way, is headquartered Downeast, in Machias.

Earlier that week, Axiom announced that Ouellette, who had been president of Axiom since 2015, was named CEO, replacing Susan Corbett, who now directs Axiom's nonprofit National Digital Equality Center.

Ouellette says the goal is still the same as it was when Corbett joined the company in 2005.

“Our whole philosophy and business is based on [Corbett's] vision to hook up every house in Maine [with broadband],” Ouellette says early one morning as he prepares for another day of cross-state meetings.

The company has two distinct functions — it's a for-profit broadband company and one of the main providers for Washington County, but it's also a nonprofit on the forefront of the state's digital literacy movement.

Axiom's projects range in scope from a partnership with Microsoft Corp. to gain rural access through use of TV “white space,” to partnering with communities developing broadband plans, including a recent memorandum of understanding with the Passamaquoddy tribe in Indian Township.

It's all part of the same thing, Ouellette says.

“Anything that provides access is something we will consider and we will do,” Ouellette says.

'What do you do with it?'

When Corbett first joined Axiom, it was out of frustration at the lack of affordable and effective wifi access Downeast. The area is tough to get to, sparsely populated and not a money-maker for large providers.

The company grew quickly, and has now installed 100 access points serving 2,500 square miles.

In 2006, Axiom hired a director of educational services to head its digital literacy program, the only one in the state. In 2014, that position evolved into the nonprofit Axiom Training & Education Center.

The literacy part is a necessary component.

“What do you do with that connection when you get it? People have to know how to use it,” Ouellette says.

He says a frequent perception of inadequate connectivity is, “Yeah, my Netflix is slow.”

“Not to minimize the importance of entertainment, but there's a whole other level of need around connectivity coming faster, faster, faster,” he says.

He says it's vital for not only the economies of the state's rural and remote areas, but individuals for whom the hospital can be 45 minutes, or two hours, away, or there's no educational institution nearby. Telemedicine and online education are vital for those who can't physically get to the sites.

Meeting challenges

Ouellette was in economic and community development before joining Axiom in 2015.

Since then, he and Corbett have pushed the company to be at the forefront of digital inclusion for Mainers.

The spread of Axiom's scope is part of a growing wave in the state to increase digital access, much of it supported by the ConnectME authority, which provides grants for broadband planning and installation, among other programs.

Axiom has made good use of state, federal and private grants for a variety of programs.

The company, which has 12 employees, also has a nose for areas where connectivity is a challenge.

The town of Cranberry Isles, five islands with a year-round population of 120, for instance, budgeted $1.2 million for a broadband buildout with Axiom at its March town meeting.

“That pretty much doubled their town budget,” Ouellette says.

The islands have geographic and logistical issues that make connecting it tough. But they were willing to pay, Ouellette says, “to keep families on the islands, keep people there, working.”

The day after the approval vote, the town learned it had been awarded a USDA grant for $1.3 million.

Axiom is also working with the Hancock County town of Stonington on its broadband plan.

The town of about 1,000 has lost about half its population since 1950. Ouellette says hopes are that broadband will “stop the outflow of talent” and attract new residents. “It's really about people,” Ouellette says.

Thousands connecting

Axiom has also partnered with communities that are aggressively looking outside the box to find economic sustainability.

Axiom was part of a collaboration with the Central Maine Growth Council, Colby College and FirstLight Fiber to install a free wifi hotspot in downtown Waterville, a next step in the city's economic reshaping.

Brian Clark, Colby College vice president of planning, said in May the hotspot will not only bring new investors to the city, but was crucial for residents, visitors and businesses.

Axiom is also part of the Millinocket region's move to re-establish itself as a four-season eco-tourism destination and lure new residents after the economic slide that began 10 years ago when the Great Northern Paper mill closed.

Axiom helped create free downtown wifi, and is also working with Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway to form a broadband utility.

As the economy of the region recovers, broadband is as much part of the essential infrastructure as road and bridges, says Jessica Masse, a member of the Katahdin Region Broadband Committee.

“The Katahdin region is remote, but with high speed internet we have the world at our doorstep,” she says. “My business, Designlab, is part of the digital economy and all we need to operate here is a fast internet connection. It makes our business possible in one of the most rural regions of Maine.”

Ouellette says that while free downtown wifi may not seem like much, it's making a difference.

Millinocket and Waterville are “very different communities,” he says. Their solutions to boost their economies are also different. But they both know that broadband access is a big part of it. “It's something they need to do.”

“In Millinocket, there are thousands connecting in the summer,” he says.The Waterville hotspot, since it fired up in May, has also shown thousands of connections a month.

Beaming through the trees

Axiom's latest project, which will help connect people in the state's most challenging areas, is use of TV white space technology through Microsoft Corp.'s Airband Initiative.

The partnership began two years ago, when Axiom won one of 12 worldwide Microsoft grants, the only North American winner.

The technology uses airspace abandoned by the TV industry when it ditched analog for digital in 2009. The vacant bands of spectrum carry broadband signals over long distances and through rough rural terrain.

“Maine's more rural areas present unique challenges for more traditional methods of delivering broadband due to the topography and other factors,” a Microsoft spokesperson tells Mainebiz. “It is also one of the most effective technologies addressing the rural broadband gap, this is why it is such a great option for Maine.”

Axiom used the initial $72,800 to connect residents in Washington County, partnering with Adaptrum, a California company that has developed the technology.

Microsoft is expanding the program, partnering with local internet service providers, and Axiom hopes to bring the technology to more areas of the state.

“I'm pretty excited,” Ouellette says.

Axiom is an ideal partner for the program, according to Microsoft. “They are part of the community and are focused on delivering broadband services to rural communities in Maine.”

Representatives from Microsoft are coming to Maine to help plan the next step, initially targeting an area outside Millinocket.

The benefit of Maine's difficult places

Ouellette stresses that connecting rural Maine is a collaboration with the state, communities and other providers. There are 40 internet providers in the state, and many are working to fill the gaps.

But he says the “scrappy little company” has some things going for it that others don't.

The same thing that makes much of what Axiom does necessary — sparsely populated and remote areas — also helps make the company effective.

Working out of Washington County means that Axiom understands the challenges firsthand.

“We work in one of Maine's most difficult places to work,” Ouellette says. “It's difficult terrain, very spread out, and we've been doing it for 14 years.”

Ouellette, a Biddeford native, says, despite the fact he spends many days criss-crossing the state, he loves his job.

“I love Maine, and I want to support Maine,” he says.

He says Axiom is built on that same feeling — what it can do to make Maine better — and those who work there feel the same way.

“When you love your work, you do well at it,” he says. “We can move the ship much more easily that way.”

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