Certain areas of South Portland soon will have access to Internet service more than 100 times faster than what’s available to most people in the state.

The city announced on Monday a collaboration with the Biddeford-based Internet service provider GWI to install a new fiber-optic network in South Portland that will provide businesses and residents along the route with 1 gigabit-per-second Internet service, according to Trevor Jones, GWI’s vice president of business development. The enhanced speed is expected to benefit businesses, consumers and educational institutions that need access to fast data transfers, boosting economic development in the process.

The new network will allow a user to download 1 gigabit – equal to 1,000 megabits – of data per second from the Internet, whether it’s streaming music or a movie on Netflix. The service is “symmetrical,” Jones said, meaning that upload speeds also will reach 1 gigabit per second.

For comparison, Maine’s average broadband Internet speed was 8.7 megabits per second in the first quarter of 2014, according to data from Cambridge, Massachusetts-based cloud services provider Akamai Technologies. The United States’ average broadband Internet speed was 10 megabits per second at the end of 2013, according to Akamai.

Average DSL service offered by companies like FairPoint Communications offer download speeds of about 20 megabits per second, Jones said. Time Warner Cable’s fastest advertised service offers download speeds of 50 megabits per second and upload speed of 5 megabits per second.

GWI’s service will be “at least as different from today’s broadband as today’s broadband is from dial-up,” Jones said.

The faster Internet connection could benefit some South Portland businesses.

Lone Wolf Media produces TV and film documentaries for clients such as the Public Broadcasting System and Animal Planet from its headquarters on Cottage Street in South Portland. It often has to share very large film and audio files with editors in Los Angeles and Boston. Because its current Internet connection isn’t fast enough, the company mails hard drives back and forth, according to Mary Soule, a post-production supervisor. She’s not sure if GWI’s soon-to-be-offered service will allow Lone Wolf to completely give up mailing hard drives, but it will help.

“We work with these people all over the country, so it will speed things up for us in a big way,” she said, adding that it will allow for more real-time collaboration with film editors in distant locations.

Matthew Fletcher, another post-production supervisor, said the new service would set Lone Wolf apart from competitors, “because it’s not something readily available to most businesses – let alone most editing houses,” he said, noting that the editors Lone Wolf works with in Los Angeles don’t have access to Internet this fast. The company plans to increase its speed fivefold to 50 megabits per second through the network.

It’s not only high-tech companies that need faster service.

Bob O’Brien, an owner of Noyes Hall & Allen Insurance on Ocean Street, plans to sign up for GWI’s service.

“We’re in the insurance business, so we’re not clearly what you consider high-tech, but the fact is every business is a technology business these days,” he said.

As an example, his 12-person insurance agency stores its client information in the cloud and requires a constant and reliable Internet connection.

“We’re on the low end in terms of the size of files we’re sending, but we’re constantly accessing them,” he said. “That’s the lifeline to our client files, so we need all the speed we can get.”

The phase of the project that will install fiber along Western Avenue near the Maine Mall includes payment technology company WEX Inc. and Texas Instruments – two potential beneficiaries from the new gigabit-per-second service, GWI’s Jones said. Representatives of those two companies were not available to comment Monday afternoon.

While some businesses will benefit from the speedier service, it’s likely more download power than the average resident will need, Jones said. Netflix, for example, says users only need 5 megabits per second of download capacity to stream HD-quality movies.

That’s why GWI’s residential gigabit offering will be $70 a month, while business customers will pay higher fees, Jones said. The starting business plan will offer 100 megabits of download speed for $200 a month, he said. If a business wants gigabit service, that will be a custom price, Jones said.

“Residential users don’t use a gigabit all the time, so residential service is less costly to provide because the utilization is typically lower than a business,” he said.

The South Portland project will cost $170,000 to install, according to Jones. The city will cover the vast majority of that in the form of a one-time, $150,000 lease payment to connect city-owned facilities to the network, Jones said. GWI will invest the remaining $20,000 to complete the project.

“This is a visionary step forward for the city of South Portland,” Mayor Jerry Jalbert said. “It doesn’t take a wizard to see that improving Internet infrastructure is critical to the economic future of our country. Our city already has outstanding educational and business resources, but moving ahead confidently like this will help secure high educational aspirations, quality of life and economic security for future generations of South Portland residents.”

Only customers along the new network’s route will have access to the gigabit-per-second service. The project will begin by connecting Maine’s “Three-Ring Binder,” a statewide fiber-optic backbone, to the Mill Creek and Knightville neighborhoods and run down Ocean Street, Waterman Drive and parts of Broadway and Highland Avenue. The second phase will connect the James Baka Drive, Western Avenue, Westbrook Street and Wescott Road corridors. A third phase could expand the network further, as funding becomes available.

If customers are separated from the fiber by a substantial space, an extra-long driveway for example, then there could be an installation fee, Jones said. GWI will begin signing up people during the construction phase. If customers sign up early enough, the company would be able to waive the installation fee, he said.

GWI has six months to install the network, Jones said. Once complete, GWI will own the fiber optic cable expected to be strung on utility poles. However, it’s providing the fiber on what’s called an “open-access basis,” which means GWI will allow other service providers to lease the network to reach customers, Jones said.

Enhancing connections

Maine’s average Internet speeds have led to low national rankings. In the Akamai Technologies survey, Maine’s average download speed of 8.7 megabits per second tied with Arizona for 37th place on the list of states’ Internet speeds. Another recent 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.

Maine’s low ranking also has caused some embarrassing headlines, with a Bloomberg editor recently comparing the state’s Internet service with that of a developing country.

“Although some of the recent publicity was uncomfortable to absorb, it did serve the purpose of giving Maine a wake-up call,” Fletcher Kittredge, CEO of GWI, said in a statement. “And one of the best things Maine has going for it is cities and towns that are very resourceful. They figure out a way.”

U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, issued a statement Monday praising the public-private partnership between South Portland and GWI.

“Reliable, high-speed Internet service is no different than electricity or water. It’s a vital public utility that’s necessary to succeed in a globally competitive economy,” King said. “Today, South Portland is giving its citizens a leg up in that competition by creating a cutting-edge broadband infrastructure network that will open the doors to greater economic and educational opportunities.”

The South Portland announcement comes a month after a similar project was announced by GWI and the midcoast town of Rockport. The South Portland project is similar to Rockport’s, but on a much larger scale, Jones said. The Rockport project will include the installation of one mile of fiber cables through the town, while GWI will initially install four miles in South Portland with the potential for more in future phases.

Jones said there could be more public-private partnerships between GWI and other Maine towns and cities in the future.

“We’re in active conversations with other municipalities,” he said. “I’m not at liberty to say who yet, but those discussions are in the early phases.”

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

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