Like its neighbor to the south, Portland is seeking to build a municipal broadband network to offer affordable high-speed broadband to its residents and businesses.

The city last week issued a request for proposals to provide a fiber-optic connection from its buildings in downtown Portland to new municipal facilities off the peninsula on Canco Road. The city says the connection could serve as “phase one” for a municipal broadband network that would offer affordable high-speed broadband service to residents, similar to what South Portland, Sanford and Rockport announced within the last year.

Portland currently maintains a fiber optic network that connects municipal buildings, like fire stations and schools. It does not, however, provide service to any neighboring residential or commercial properties.

The expansion is necessary because the city is consolidating public works, fire, and recreation operations in two buildings off the peninsula on Canco Road not far from Cheverus High School. The consolidation will reduce the city’s presence in the Bayside neighborhood, which has been targeted for development.

“We’re very excited about the possibility that this project could bring with it an added bonus for a large portion of our residents and businesses,” Jon Jennings, Portland’s city manager, said in a statement. “Giving our citizens along this line a path to affordable high speed connectivity will spur economic development. There are several possible options for implementing this, and we look forward to exploring the costs and benefits of each.”

What Portland is proposing is similar to the plan South Portland announced last fall to build a 4-mile network of fiber, and a plan Sanford announced in September to help fund the building of a 32-mile municipal broadband network. Rockport has also built 1.6 miles of fiber.

Fletcher Kittredge, CEO of Biddeford-based Great Works Internet, or GWI, said Monday that his company is very interested in bidding for the Portland job. GWI won the bids in Rockport, South Portland and Sanford to build those municipal networks.

“I think it’s very innovative and creative for the city to do this,” Kittredge said. “They will potentially get a lot of bang for their buck.”

Two connection options

The city’s RFPs present two options. The first would simply connect the Canco Road facilities using the minimum amount of fiber, a less expensive project that would only serve the municipality’s immediate needs, the city’s purchasing manager Matthew Fitzgerald wrote in the RFP.

The more extensive second option is considered “phase one of an open access fiber network” for the city, Fitzgerald wrote. This option would connect the city’s downtown facilities with those on Canco Road, and build out enough fiber to offer high-speed service to residents and businesses along the route. Fitzgerald cites the broadband projects in South Portland and Rockport that have been able to offer Internet speeds of 1 gigabyte per second. It takes about 1 GB to upload or download 1,000 photos or watch four hours of streaming video.

Portland residents don’t have affordable access to higher- speed broadband, according to Jessica Grondin, a city spokeswoman. She said Monday that the city has discussed the possibility of supporting a municipal broadband network for some time and that this extension to Canco Road was an opportunity to start that process.

Grondin said the city prefers to pursue the second option.

“I think the reason there’s an option two is there’s a cost-benefit analysis that needs to be done,” said Grondin. “But if everything works out I think there’s a preference for option two.”

In option two, the city proposes a fiber route that departs the peninsula on Forest Avenue and extends all the way to Ocean Avenue, providing high-speed service to short lengths of streets like Fessenden and Woodford that stem off the route. The fiber would stretch down Ocean Avenue to Cheverus High School before turning northwest and running along a residential street like Gleckler or Read to connect to Canco Road. The city estimates this route would make high-speed service to approximately 838 residential properties and more than 350 commercial properties.

If those estimates are true, Portland would have the largest municipal broadband network in the state, according to Kittredge. He said it would be 10 times bigger than South Portland’s network and slightly larger than Sanford’s network, which GWI has recently finished the design work for.

“I think it’s an exciting project and I’m sure there will be a lot of bidders,” Kittredge said.

Unserved need for speed

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan addressed the need to increase broadband access during his State of the City address in January. At the time, Brennan said a broadband project in Portland would be challenging financially and logistically because the city is so developed, yet it is as important as building housing, roadways and bridges.

Brennan, who lost his re-election campaign in last week’s election, issued a statement Monday saying the broadband project proposed in the RFP is a “concrete step in the right direction.”

Maine has ranked close to the bottom on lists of broadband speeds by state, including a report based on Ookla NetMetrics data that said Maine ranks 49th out of the 50 states and a recent report from Akamai Technologies that puts Maine at 48th among U.S. states and far behind countries like Estonia and Macao.

Roughly 80 percent of Maine households are considered to be “unserved” by high-speed Internet service, according to the ConnectME Authority, which is responsible for expanding broadband access throughout Maine. Less than 15 percent of the state has access to upload and download speeds of 10 megabytes per second, according to the authority.

Phil Lindley, director of the ConnectME Authority, said “option two is very interesting” because of what it implies.

“Creating a fiber-based system is significant as it allows much higher, symmetrical bandwidth that is currently more important for businesses than residences,” Lindley said. “Symmetrical” service means upload speeds are the same as download speeds.

Lindley said this type of project requires a lot of forethought, and the small amount of information included in the RFP leaves many questions unanswered.

“The question is who will run the network, an ISP or telco as a contractor or the city? Many municipalities across the country are taking this step in response to a lack of competition, adequate service, high pricing. Portland needs to be sure of what their goals are and how this type of network works toward them,” Lindley said.

The bid deadline is Dec. 10. Money has not been appropriated yet for the project and any potential contract must meet with city council approval.

Whit Richardson can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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