Listen up, rural Mainers. The next time your local selectman or legislator knocks on the door asking for your vote, look them in the eye and ask this out-of-nowhere question: “When are you going to build us an on-ramp to the high-speed Internet highway?”
And then, if they ask with a blank stare what the heck you’re talking about, tell them about Wired West.
It’s a 43-town cooperative in western Massachusetts that is well on its way to bringing fiber-optic Internet service to every nook and cranny of a region that, like much of Maine, is now living in the dark ages when it comes to high-speed, broadband technology.
Thanks to a recent $50 million commitment from the Massachusetts Legislature and the tireless efforts of community volunteers who know an economic development juggernaut when they see one, Wired West is to western Massachusetts what the Rural Electrification Administration was to most of the country back in the 1930s – a bright light illuminating the path to a prosperous future.
“We all had the same vision,” said Monica Webb, who chairs Wired West’s board of directors, in a telephone interview this week. “And that was, ‘Let’s build a network – and not one that’s just going to be good for five years. Let’s build a network that will serve for decades into the future. A generation-proof network. Let’s build that.’ ”
So why not do the same in Maine? If residents of western Massachusetts can have one-gigabit-per-second Internet service that uploads and downloads more than 100 times faster than the average cable hookup, why can’t we?
Our information highway is already in place: Maine’s 1,100-mile Three-Ring Binder, a $32 million fiber-optic network that passes through 170 communities and close by many more, is just as fast as the Massachusetts Broadband 123, to which Wired West’s members will soon hook up their very own municipal Internet systems.
(Full disclosure: Robert C.S. Monks, a member of MaineToday Media’s board of directors, is also a director of Maine Fiber Co., which owns the Three-Ring Binder.)
There’s also growing enthusiasm around super-fast Internet as a much-needed economic engine for Maine: This week, South Portland announced a partnership with the Internet provider GWI that will provide parts of that city with “last mile” connections to the Three-Ring Binder system. That comes on the heels of Rockport’s recent unveiling of its community-owned fiber-optic network, also tethered to the Three-Ring Binder.
“We used to get 10 calls a year from Maine communities (interested in upgrading their Internet access),” said Josh Broder, CEO and owner of the Portland-based Tilson Technology Management. “Now we get 10 calls a month.”
Smart communities. While cable behemoths like Time Warner and Comcast show zero interest in upgrading their antiquated cable systems to state-of-the-art speeds – leaving most Mainers with what one Bloomberg News commentator recently called the Internet service “of a developing country” – there’s no legal impediment in Maine to municipalities building their own systems. (Twenty-one other states, under heavy pressure from the cable and wireless industries, now prohibit such a thing.)
As U.S. Sen. Angus King, a broadband cheerleader if ever there was one, put it in an interview Thursday, high-speed broadband is as important to rural Maine as stringing electrical wires to outlying homes and farms was back in the 1930s.
“We’ve absolutely got to do it,” said King. “It’s an economic death sentence for a community that can’t get broadband.”
Hear, hear, Senator. Yet for each light bulb going on in places like South Portland, Rockport, Sanford, Old Town, Orono and Ellsworth – to name a handful of the Maine municipalities either tapping into the Three-Ring Binder or at least talking about it – many more communities still seem asleep at the switch.
Fletcher Kittredge, founder and CEO of GWI, attended a “Community Fiber Networks” conference last week in Springfield, Massachusetts.
“It was the best conference I’ve ever been to,” gushed Kittredge. “The excitement was just palpable. There was just so much energy around this.”
Hold for the “but.”
“But there was no one there from any Maine cities or towns,” he continued. “Upstate New York, Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma – they were all there.”
“I just think we’re a little bit out of touch up here,” said Kittredge. “The reason it’s not happening is because people (in Maine) don’t really know what’s going on in the rest of the country.”
What’s going on, at least in western Massachusetts, may well be a long-term solution to many of the same economic and demographic problems now plaguing Maine.
“What we’re dealing with now is losing population,” said Wired West’s Webb. “The population is aging, and young couples, young families, professors, they don’t want to live and work here if there’s not broadband. It’s like 60 or 70 years ago saying, ‘Do you want to live here if there’s only electricity to some of the homes?’ ”
(The answer to that is an emphatic “no” in the tiny Massachusetts town of Leverett: In addition to joining Wired West, folks there are building – via a $3.6 million general obligation bond approved by 83 percent of the voters – a fiber-optic broadband network that soon will reach every one of Leverett’s 800 homes and small businesses. “The build-out is actually going on right now as we speak,” reported Selectman Peter d’Arrico on Tuesday.)
Closer to home, James Nimon, executive director of the Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council, recalls surveying western York County’s economic development landscape when he moved into his job just over three years ago. Back then, most of the talk centered on widening Route 109 along the 15-mile corridor connecting Sanford to the Maine Turnpike.
Now, Nimon said, all eyes are on a just-completed plan to connect five “anchor institutions” throughout Sanford with the Three-Ring Binder, which passes about 10 miles to the east. The cost, relatively miniscule when compared with a major road project, would be around $1 million, Nimon said.
“We’re much, much better off thinking about jumping into the telecom world,” said Nimon. “This will be a huge highway – and it will be above ground and just follow wire. It’s got to be our future.”
And that future, just like all those politicians, is knocking on Maine’s door.