While many Cumberland County residents say their internet service is good enough to meet their needs, they are unhappy with the business practices of their internet provider and would choose an alternative if they could – even if it involved spending taxpayer funds.

Those are the findings of a new report on the future of broadband internet service in Cumberland County, commissioned by county officials and funded primarily by a federal Community Development Block Grant. The report is designed to offer guidance to community leaders who are considering municipal broadband projects to compete with private monopolies such as Spectrum and Consolidated Communications.

An online survey of 775 Cumberland County residents, conducted as part of the report, found that 87 percent of respondents expressed support for a bond-funded effort to build a better broadband network, and 88 percent said they would support a community-owned broadband utility. Many expressed “strong dissatisfaction with existing providers,” the report states.

Report author Brian Lippold, president of Casco Bay Advisors, a telecommunications and broadband consulting firm based in Gardiner, said that although the survey’s sample size was small, the results indicate county residents seem to favor the idea of a subsidized broadband network to compete with existing providers.

“I think the high percentage of respondents that are willing to have the government step in and build and operate and own a network, that surprised me that there was that level of support,” he said. “And interestingly, the respondents were pretty evenly distributed around the county.”

Lippold noted that the survey questions did not go into any greater detail, such as asking respondents by how much they would be willing to have their property taxes increase to fund such a project.

Most who took the survey said their existing internet service is generally good enough to do all the things they want to do online, and that the price of their service is reasonable, according to the report. However, it said they also criticized their provider for allowing broadband service quality to degrade during high-traffic hours, and they complained that calling the internet provider’s customer service line is often a frustrating experience.

About 75 percent of respondents said they use Spectrum internet service, 10 percent use Consolidated Communications, 8 percent use Verizon, 7 percent use Comcast Xfinity, 6 percent use AT&T, and another 10 percent use other services, according to the report. Respondents could choose more than one provider if they use multiple services.

The survey results comprised only one section of the 110-page report, which cost $30,000 to produce. Cumberland County spokesman Travis Kennedy said the county used $5,000 of its own funds and a $25,000 block grant to pay for the work.

DIY KITS FOR MUNICIPALITIES

Kennedy said the report could serve as a playbook for any communities in the county that are considering their own municipal or regional broadband projects. It includes educational material on how the various broadband technologies work, maps of existing fiber-optic networks in the county available for lease, and rough estimates of the costs to build both a countywide fiber-optic backbone, as well as a fiber-to-the-home network that would provide high-speed internet access to every residence in the county.

“Our goal for the document now is to get as many hands on it as possible, and for communities’ purpose, they can decide what they want to do with it,” Kennedy said. “If they want to put it in a desk drawer until people start asking questions, that’s their prerogative. If they want to present it to their town councils as a means to get them thinking about the issue, that’s great. If they’re already sort of interested in moving in a direction, it hopefully will provide them some guidance.”

One of the report’s most interesting sections is the one that envisions a countywide fiber-to-the-home network that would provide access to all residents, including those on the islands in Casco Bay and Sebago Lake. The report predicts that such a network would be viable as a business as long as 50 percent of residents signed up, garnering a 40 percent market share within its first three years and operating at a 15 percent profit margin while charging each customer $60 a month for 100 megabit-per-second service. Service 10 times that speed at 1 gigabit per second would cost customers $150 a month, it says.

However, the up-front costs to build such a network would exceed $200 million, the report says. A countywide fiber-optic backbone network, which still would require privately owned internet service providers to complete the “last-mile” fiber-optic connections to individual homes, would cost significantly less at about $5.6 million, it says.

Kennedy said the county has no plans to push for a $200 million bond to build its own fiber-optic network. A more viable plan would be to have a group of municipalities work together with private industry on a funding plan that would be palatable to taxpayers while offering an attractive return on investment.

Incumbent service providers such as Spectrum and Consolidated could build a countywide fiber-to-the-home network for far less money than a new project starting from scratch, Lippold said, because they already have much of the infrastructure in place. Still, he said local governments have no power to force those providers to upgrade countywide, and the biggest network improvements are likely to occur in more profitable, high-density communities such as Portland and Westbrook.

Lippold said another potential use for the report could be as leverage to convince existing providers to step up and build fiber-to-the-home networks in all areas of the county they serve before public pressure builds for a subsidized, countywide network that would offer serious competition.

“It could be a viable threat, if you will,” he said.


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