Responding to concerns about a conflict of interest, the new overseer of Maine’s statewide fiber-optic network offered assurances Friday that it will continue to manage the high-speed internet infrastructure in an open and impartial manner.

Some internet service providers in Maine have expressed concerns about Albany, New York-based FirstLight Fiber, in part because it is the majority owner of Oxford Networks, an internet service provider based in Norway. FirstLight announced Thursday that it has acquired Maine Fiber Co., the original administrator of the Three Ring Binder, the fiber-optic network that connects Maine’s rural communities to the internet.

One longtime Three Ring Binder customer, Houlton-based Pioneer Broadband, said it is worried about the conflict of interest. It noted that FirstLight now controls which companies can use the network, while owning one of the network’s primary users.

“We have worked tirelessly for the last few years to get out of situations where our competitors control our network backbone segments,” Pioneer CEO Tim McAfee said.

McAfee fears FirstLight could raise prices on its competitors, deny them access to the network or put their maintenance and repair requests at the bottom of its priorities list.

But FirstLight issued a statement Friday in which it vowed to maintain the same standards of openness and impartiality to which its predecessor Maine Fiber was committed.

“FirstLight understands its obligations under the BTOP program and plans to honor those commitments,” said Maura Mahoney, the company’s vice president of marketing and product management. “FirstLight has also acquired other BTOP-funded assets throughout New England and has a history of making this dark fiber available to its customers on an open access and non-discriminatory basis.”

BTOP stands for the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, a $4 billion grant program administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration as part of the 2009 federal economic stimulus bill. The goal of the program, which funded 80 percent of the Three Ring Binder’s $31.7 million construction cost, was “to help bridge the technological divide; create jobs; and improve education, health care and public safety in communities across the country.”

Maine Fiber was created out of the program with the purpose of functioning as a disinterested arbiter of network assignments on the Three Ring Binder. Unlike FirstLight, it did not own any commercial users of the network.

On Friday, a top Maine official said FirstLight has no choice but to abide by the same open-access policies as its predecessor for at least the next decade.

“It is our understanding that federal regulations require any transfer of assets maintain the initial BTOP requirements for the ‘useful life’ of fiber, meaning that DECD anticipates another 10 years of open and non-discriminatory access at a minimum,” said Heather Johnson, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development. “We look forward to working with FirstLight and other broadband service providers as we collectively expand broadband access in Maine.”

LEASING ACCESS

FirstLight was founded in 1999 and has built, acquired and operated its own fiber-optic network, which stretches from New York City to Montreal. Its customers include national telecommunications providers, health care organizations, high-tech manufacturing and research facilities, financial institutions, colleges and universities, K-12 schools and public safety agencies, as well as local and state governments.

Fiber-optic backbone networks are made up of cables and nodes that extend up to thousands of miles, with each cable containing a bundle of many unassigned, “dark” fiber-optic strands. Unused strands are considered dark because there is no data flowing through them in the form of light pulses.

The network operator’s responsibilities include maintaining the network and assigning dark strands of optical fiber to internet service providers and other companies that want to lease access to the network. In this case, FirstLight will be assigning leases to companies including Oxford, which it owns, as well as to Oxford’s potential competitors.

The Three Ring Binder has roughly 185,000 “strand miles,” the total length of all its fiber-optic strands, strung above ground along roughly 29,000 utility poles. Its construction was funded by a $25.4 million BTOP grant, as well as $7.4 million in private investment from about 75 individual investors.

GWI, Otelco, Pioneer Broadband and Axiom Technologies are among the rural internet service providers that lease space on the network.

Completed in 2012, the network loops through more than 100 communities, spanning 110,000 households, 600 schools, libraries and other institutions, and 38 government facilities.

Under rules designed to encourage competition that were established at the time the federal grant was issued, the network was to be open to all potential customers, and no single entity could use more than 20 percent of any segment of the Three Ring Binder. Maine Fiber’s website underscores its impartiality, saying the network “is available to all qualified users on an equal basis.”

McAfee said his biggest fear is that FirstLight would essentially take over usage of the Three Ring Binder for its own purposes. While there are other fiber-optic networks in Maine, none is as far-reaching into rural areas where the greatest need for service improvements exists.

“I can only hope that they realize the importance of keeping the network open and dark,” he said. “If the network becomes a foundation for new lit services instead of the existing dark fiber offerings, the benefit to small (internet service providers) and (competitive local exchange carriers) like ours may no longer be enjoyed. That may slow our fiber-optic network investment in rural areas around Maine that were once within reach by the Three Ring Binder.”

Mahoney, the FirstLight vice president, indicated that the company’s reputation and the way it has handled previous network acquisitions should be a strong indicator that none of the local providers’ fears will be realized. She said its plans are to make improvements to the network that will expand access to internet services in rural Maine.

“FirstLight has been operating in the state of Maine for nearly 20 years with offices and locally based employees, and through the acquisition of Oxford Networks, has roots back a century serving the state,” Mahoney said. “During that time, the company has continually invested in expanding its fiber network and enhancing its capabilities with the goal of expanding access to broadband services across the state, including underserved areas.

“Now that the (Maine Fiber purchase) transaction has been formally announced, we look forward to working closely with customers and key stakeholders to support our collective efforts around broadband expansion in the state of Maine.”

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