The town of Rockport on Monday unveiled its own ultra-high-speed Internet network – a 1.6-mile string of fiber-optic cable that officials hope will spur economic growth and make the midcoast town an entrepreneurial destination.
For the first time in Maine, a town spent public dollars to build an Internet network that, albeit small, represents a break from business as usual in the state, where there is relatively little consumer choice when it comes to buying Internet access.
“Infrastructure runs the economy,” said Fletcher Kittredge, CEO of GWI, the Biddeford-based telecommunications company that provides Rockport with Internet access. “There are all sorts of companies that can’t start up in communities without this.”
Although only 70 households or businesses have the option to buy the service, proponents of faster, more equitable Internet access say the model in Rockport is likely to be replicated more and more in Maine and throughout the nation, as Internet service becomes less a privilege and more a staple of modern life and business.
At about $69 a month for 100 megabits per second of upload and download speed, Rockport’s service outpaces Time Warner Cable, whose fastest advertised service is 50 megabits per second for downloads and 5 megabits per second for uploads, at about $65 per month, plus the cost of leased hardware.
If other towns follow Rockport’s lead, Maine could begin to pull itself from the bottom of national rankings for access to quality Internet service. A report by Montana-based Ookla NetMetrics, which measures network performance, pegged Maine at 49th out of the 50 states for quality and availability of high-speed connections. Other such assessments put Maine near the middle or lower half of the pack.
As other nations, especially in Europe and Asia, leap forward toward faster basic Internet service, Kittredge said Maine communities are working to catch up in an attempt to create the economic engine that Internet startups bring.
“The old model of economic development was businesses needed water, sewer and natural gas,” said Rick Bates, Rockport’s town manager. “That model has gone away. We’re hoping we can bring in those new, young entrepreneurs who are all about place first and then connectivity.”
The project is a result of a yearlong collaboration among the town, the Maine Media Workshops & College, the University of Maine System, and GWI. Rockport’s fledgling network will offer Internet speeds faster than even the fastest residential services.
The Maine Media Workshops & College, a nonprofit institution that teaches photography, videography, filmmaking and other visual storytelling methods to about 1,500 students a year, was a driving force behind the network. Its campus is about a mile from Route 1 in Rockport Village.
Students and faculty at the school, whose work is stored in massive digital files, began regularly bumping up against the school’s maximum network capability.
But the small school could not afford to invest in improving its own infrastructure, said Meg Weston, president of Maine Media Workshops & College.
In the Rockport partnership, the town used about $30,000 of tax increment financing, public money set aside to entice businesses to the area by paying for traditional utility installations and hookups. But because Rockport’s tax financing law made no mention of fiber-optic networks, the town changed the law, asking voters twice for approval to modify the legal language and then to fund the network.
The total buildout cost was about $60,000. If all goes well, the network could be expanded to offer fiber-optic speeds to neighborhoods close to the network backbone.
Network Maine, a division of the University of Maine System that deals exclusively with wiring the university’s properties, K-12 public schools and community libraries for Internet, contributed a small chunk of money and mostly acted as a go-between for the town, GWI, and Maine Media Workshops, said Jeff Letourneau, Network Maine’s executive director.
Weston, who said the service has been up and running since July, has received an unusual form of praise.
“People don’t complain,” she said. “Silence is a big applause.”