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Residents of 2 Casco Bay islands band together to bring high-speed internet to their homes

/ Categories: In the Media
Residents of 2 Casco Bay islands band together to bring high-speed internet to their homes 314

More than a dozen Maine islands are waiting for access to fast, reliable internet that has become critical for everything from schoolwork to watching movies.

GREAT DIAMOND ISLAND — Homes with few close neighbors dot a quiet, wooded slice of land in Casco Bay, about a 25-minute ferry ride from downtown Portland.

No more than 150 people live year-round on the island that housed Army coastal defense officers from the late 1800s until after World War II.

Here, golf carts and bicycles replace cars and SUVs, so the Consolidated Communications trucks stood out recently. They were the only large vehicles on the island, and residents had been waiting for them.

It took a long time for high-speed internet to reach Great Diamond Island and its slightly southwestern counterpart, Little Diamond Island.

When funding was approved last spring to bring fiber optic technology to the communities’ 255 or so residents, the news was greeted with jubilation.

“We were drunk for about a week,” said Matt Hoffner, a part-time instructor at the Maine Technology Institute who lives on Great Diamond Island and helped organize the effort. “It was really a joyous occasion.”

The project, which was completed recently and gives residents an alternative to DSL and fixed wireless systems, will deliver faster and more reliable internet service that has become critical for everything from schoolwork to paying bills, telemedicine, videoconferencing and watching TV.

It’s part of a statewide effort to expand high-speed internet access to remote stretches of Maine. That includes more than a dozen year-round “unbridged” islands off Maine’s coast, according to the Island Institute, a Rockland-based coastal resource organization.

But the effort is difficult and costly.

Rosemary Ratcliff and her husband bought their house on Great Diamond in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when internet service was particularly needed. What was available then fell short.

“We could not get consistent service for kids doing school remotely,” said Ratcliff, who is retired. “We realized that other people living on the island whose children were in school fulltime and doing their jobs was really difficult.”

Broadband also protects her home with security cameras and helps residents cope with the remoteness of island living.

“Being a ferry ride from an urban area, you’re more isolated,” Ratcliff said.

Several federal and state funding sources are tapped to leverage financing with telecommunications companies, local taxpayers and bond markets to come up with the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to bring fiber networks to isolated communities in Casco Bay, Penobscot Bay and areas of the Atlantic Ocean.

The new fiber optic network serving Great Diamond Island and Little Diamond Island was made possible by a $667,091 grant to Consolidated Communications from the Maine Connectivity Authority, which covered more than 80% of the cost. Consolidated Communications, which has been promoting its Fidium fiber brand, had been in conversations with Hoffner for two years.

Another telecommunications provider balked at a deal, and residents “dug in” with their application to the connectivity authority for funding, said Amy Farrell, who, along with Hoffner and five others, is a member of the committee established to bring a network to the islands.5/11

‘HOW’S THE CONNECTIVITY?’

As desirable as island living is to interested buyers, the “first question is, ‘How’s the connectivity?’” said Farrell, a real estate broker. The absence of reliable, high-speed broadband was often a “deal-breaker.”

Fiber-optic internet transmits information in the form of light rather than electricity.

Optical fibers slightly larger than a strand of hair are bundled to form cables. On Great Diamond Island, a box attached to a utility pole along a dirt road in a wooded area contains the cable connections for hundreds of homes, businesses and multiunit complexes fashioned from onetime military barracks and officers’ housing.

The Maine Connectivity Authority grant for the project – a line extension filling in gaps close to where providers have service – and a copper cable already buried under Casco Bay, to which fiber cable is lashed, made the project financially possible, said Simon C. Thorne, Consolidated Communications’ senior manager of government affairs.

The cost would have doubled had the company been required to lay cable, he said. And with the two islands’ sparse population, a rate of return for Consolidated Communications ‘investment would have been “far in the future.”

The Maine Connectivity Authority funds projects such as this, using $129 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding established during the pandemic and $21 million from the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan, a state program also funded with federal dollars.

“At the end of the day, we heard from Consolidated and the community and came to the conclusion it was a good fit,” said Brian Allenby, program operations and communications director at the quasi-governmental agency.

Federal funding accounts for a large share of the project because Great Diamond Island and Little Diamond Island are home to few customers to finance capital costs, he said. Public-private partnerships are closer to a 50-50 funding split in dense urban areas connecting a few thousand homes generating more revenue for telecommunications companies, Allenby said.

In an October 2022 letter to the connectivity authority, representatives of homeowners ’associations on the two islands complained that no active plans were in the works from providers to bring viable broadband service.

“As the rest of Maine moves ahead, we are now at risk of becoming an area within the boundaries of the city of Portland, which is technologically uninhabitable by the commonly acceptable connectivity standards of most Americans,” they wrote.

They compared the jurisdiction in Maine’s largest city to the “most remote parts” of the state. No DSL or fixed wireless service has “any viable path to be upgradable to modern broadband standards,” they said.

GIVING CONSUMERS A CHOICE

Jim McKenna, CEO of Redzone, said the Rockland-based wireless technology company was invited to the islands by residents more than eight years ago.

“We think we built the right system at the right time,” he said in a recent interview. “The big news story for the islands is that consumers have a choice. Everyone should have a choice. I’m a proponent of wireless technology, but it’s just great the people on the islands can choose between wired service and wireless service.”

McKenna said he expects some customers will switch from Redzone now that fiber is available.

“So far, the vast majority is sticking with Redzone. We appreciate the business of the islands, but we are statewide,” he said.

He also defended wireless technology as “considerably more reliable” than what he described as a wired network.

“A wire could fail at every foot of the cable,” he said. “And of course, we have this crazy weather in Maine, which tends to take down trees and poles.”

However, wireless technology is powered by electricity and can also be affected by downed poles.

McKenna said bringing telecommunications to Maine’s many islands is challenging. Their small populations don’t generate strong revenue, and many customers are part-time residents, he said.9/11

The Island Institute has identified 14 year-round unbridged islands where broadband has arrived or is planned. More than 2,300 internet connections have been established using a variety of funding sources – federal, state, bond markets – on nine islands: Chebeague, Cliff, Cranberry Islands, Great Diamond and Little Diamond, Isle au Haut, Islesboro, Long Island, Monhegan and Swans islands.

On five other islands – Frenchboro, Matinicus, North Haven, Peaks and Vinalhaven –funding from public sources is likely or is to be determined, according to the Island Institute.

For example, voters approved a plan in 2017 establishing Islesboro Municipal Broadband that serves 714 residences and businesses, “pretty much the entire island,” said Roger Heinen, a leader of the town committee spearheading the effort. The town owns the infrastructure, and the service is operated by GWI, a Biddeford internet service provider.

The project began after the select board received a letter from a family who complained about poor internet service and the town sponsored a census finding widespread dissatisfaction with spotty or unavailable service, he said. Construction costing $3.8 million was financed by a 20-year bond, similar to other capital projects, Heinen said. Residents pay$370 a year for internet service.

“We were pretty much out on our own,” Heinen said. “Now you can’t swing a cat without finding a company or region trying to bring internet.”

A BUMPY ROAD

Hoffner, the part-time Maine Technology instructor who lives on Great Diamond Island, said the path to fiber internet on the two islands was not smooth. Spectrum, in its negotiations with Portland, rejected a deal that would have included Great Diamond Island and Little Diamond Island, he said.

“We got completely cut out,” said Hoffner, who has launched internet companies and advises on business strategies.

Charter Communications, a competitor of Consolidated Communications, said in an emailed statement that although its Spectrum brand is “strongly committed” to expanding broadband networks to unserved and underserved Mainers, “none of the pathways we have explored for serving these Casco Bay islands are feasible.” It did not elaborate.

Jessica Grondin, director of communications and digital services for Portland, said Charter Communications had initially said it would not establish cable to seasonal communities and set a threshold of 150 year-round households for each island to be eligible for cable installation. Only Peaks Island met that threshold, she said.

Consolidated Communications, headquartered in Mattoon, Illinois, has spent $1.5 billion since 2021 to convert its network to fiber from copper-based DSL. It warned shareholders in December that failure to execute its plan or significantly slowing the upgrade jeopardizes its “already precarious competitive position.” The company – which struck a deal to be bought by a private equity firm and a Canadian company that provides investment management services – said it faces inflationary pressures on construction costs, strong competition for broadband subscribers, rising borrowing costs as interest rates climb and other factors.

Allenby, of the Maine Connectivity Authority, said other telecom companies face similar problems. Maine will not tap its federal funding to provide financial help.

“What we aren’t is a bank,” he said. “We’re not a loan officer. If someone has a financial shortfall, we’re not a partner.”

Ben Rockney, a technology licensing officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, commutes to Cambridge, Massachusetts, two days a week and says he is frustrated by a wireless connection at a house he and his wife, Laurie, are renting on Great Diamond Island. It has “pretty frequent pauses and occasional complete dropouts” during snow storms and heavy rain, he said.

In a few weeks, they expect to move into a nearby house they are having built that is equipped with fiber internet. He’s not yet used it for his job but is “definitely looking forward “to doing so.

“I’ve never seen web pages open faster. It’s incredible,” Rockney said.

When he and his wife moved to Great Diamond Island from Massachusetts 18 months ago, Rockney said he took a chance on fiber internet eventually coming.

“There was a lot of talk about fiber coming eventually,” he said. “There was a lot of smoke, but no fire.”

If the island failed to attract high-speed broadband, Rockney said Plan B would have been to rent office space in Portland.

“I guess I was just playing the odds. I figured it would come eventually,” he said.


Photos courtesy of Portland Press Herald; view the full version of this story at: https://www.pressherald.com/2024/03/18/residents-of-two-casco-bay-islands-band-together-to-bring-high-speed-internet-to-their-homes/

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