Sanford is planning to create the largest, fastest broadband network in the state, one that will allow residents to download movies in seconds and businesses to compete regardless of where they are located.

The new, 32-mile fiber-optic loop will significantly expand the Three Ring Binder network, which brought high-speed Internet access to rural parts of the state. City officials say the new loop will be an important catalyst for economic development, give the city a competitive advantage to attract new businesses, and provide residents and existing businesses with consistent and affordable access to high-speed Internet.

The system is expected to begin coming on line at the end of 2016 and will have upload and download speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second, 100 times faster than is currently available in Sanford. The city will invest $1.5 million as part of the public-private partnership building the network, estimating it will generate $47 million to $192 million in economic output for the region in the first 10 years.

“Sanford is in transition from a classic New England mill town to a city that is trying to create an identity for itself,” Mayor Tom Cote said. “This allows us to differentiate ourselves and create an economic engine for the city. It creates opportunity for us on a global level and puts us on an even playing field with virtually any city.”

MAINE INTERNET SPEEDS QUITE SLOW

The Three Ring Binder network, built with a $25.4 million federal stimulus grant and $7.4 million in private investment, was completed in 2012. That 10-gigabit network, which is fast enough to download a feature film in half a second, provides a backbone for high-speed Internet access to rural communities. It did not include York County.

“Health care is a heavy user of technology, and Southern Maine Health Care provides extensive physician and outpatient services in Sanford, so this is excellent news,” said Ed McGeachey, SMHC’s president and CEO. “The addition of expanded high-speed Internet to the Sanford area is a wonderful benefit to the businesses and individuals who value ease and speed in communications. It is yet another indication of how Sanford is building the foundation for growth that we all see happening here in the future.”

The announcement of the new project in Sanford was made at Digital New England, a regional summit organized by Next Century Cities, a national nonprofit helping municipalities pursue expanded broadband access, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Rockport and South Portland were both inaugural members of Next Century Cities when it was founded in 2014. Since then, Sanford, Scarborough and Islesboro have joined the organization, which now has 118 member cities. Rockport and South Portland also have built municipal broadband systems, but Sanford’s plan dwarfs them both. Rockport built 1.6 miles of fiber, while South Portland intends to build a total of 4 miles.

Maine has slow Internet speeds compared with the rest of the country. Last year, its broadband speeds were ranked 49th out of 50 states by Ookla NetMetrics, and a separate report from Akamai Technologies put Maine at 48th among U.S. states, and far behind countries such as Estonia and Macao.

Roughly 80 percent of Maine households are considered to be “unserved” by high-speed Internet service, according to the ConnectME Authority. Less than 15 percent of the state has access to upload and download speeds of 10 Mbps, according to the authority.

The Sanford project will be operated by Biddeford-based GWI. It will be an open network, so various providers could use the system, according to city officials.

Fletcher Kittredge, founder and CEO of GWI, said the public-private partnership is an exciting undertaking.

“It’s different than anything done in Maine so far. This answers the question of what will happen to communities that aren’t connected to the Three Ring Binder,” he said. “It’s a city connecting itself.”

Jim Nimon, executive director of the nonprofit Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council, said conversations about bringing broadband to Sanford began two years ago as officials looked for ways to tackle economic development in the city. Sanford, the seventh-largest city in Maine with a population of about 21,000, is more than 7 miles from the nearest turnpike exit. The city’s physical location can be a barrier to economic development, but access to a broadband network makes the city a more desirable place to live and do business, city officials say.

“We see this as a way to modernize,” Nimon said.

NETWORK OPEN TO OTHER TOWNS

Planning for the project included a broadband survey sent to more than 40 businesses that provided feedback attesting to the need for faster, wider broadband connection. While some Internet service providers offer download speeds in Sanford that surpass 10 Mbps, none is able to offer comparable upload speeds. Upload speeds are particularly important to businesses that need to send or upload large data files to the cloud or to clients.

Cost for the high-speed service won’t be known until later in the project, said city officials.

City Manager Steve Buck said the network can accommodate additional municipal partners along the proposed routes, such as Wells, Kennebunk and Alfred. He said Sanford insisted that GWI and NextGen build an “open access” network, meaning that once it’s in place, providers other than GWI can use the infrastructure for an appropriate fee.

“That encourages future competition in the delivery of Internet services. We felt that was a key stipulation that will benefit Internet customers in this community for many decades,” Buck said in a written statement.

BROADBAND VITAL TO BUSINESSES

Kittredge said access to broadband Internet is becoming vital for most businesses, including in the hospitality industry. He said the construction of a municipal broadband network in Rockport has benefited lodging providers whose guests want access to high-speed Wi-Fi.

“People don’t go to bed-and-breakfasts, hotels and motels that have bad Wi-Fi,” he said. “It becomes absolutely vital to an industry that you wouldn’t have thought of.”

At the summit, Sen. Angus King underscored the need to expand broadband infrastructure in Maine and throughout New England because of the important role it plays in driving economic growth and prosperity.

“High-speed broadband is a gateway to economic and educational opportunity in the 21st century,” King said. “But right now, there are too many people who are denied those opportunities simply because they don’t have adequate Internet access.”

King said access can be expanded through collaboration among local leaders, the private sector and all levels of government.

State Sen. David Woodsome, a Republican whose district includes Sanford and who chairs the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, called the decision by Sanford officials to pursue the project “bold and far-reaching.”

“I see this aggressive step by Sanford leaders as an excellent test case for the state of Maine as to the role of technology in bringing economic development and jobs to areas with struggling economies,” Woodsome said. “We must be willing to invest in the future to strengthen Maine’s economy, and I am pleased that Sanford is at the forefront of doing so.”