Laying fiber optic cable in rural communities is part of Maine’s ambitious broadband plan

On a frigid December morning, John Moore watched as his lineman secured a fiber optic cable between utility poles along a wooded road in the northeastern Maine town of Dedham.

The work is part of a statewide effort to bring high-speed Internet to everyone who wants it, whether they live in more populated areas around Portland or in the state’s sprawling rural regions, where more than half of the state’s population resides.

Just days earlier, Gov. Janet Mills announced that Maine had received an additional $5.5 million in federal “Internet for All” planning grant to encourage the deployment and use of affordable, high-speed Internet service statewide to plan. According to the Maine Connectivity Authority, the $5.5 million is just a portion of nearly $250 million in state bipartisan infrastructure legislation Maine is likely to receive.

Maine’s 2020 Broadband Plan estimated the total cost of expanding 17,502 miles not currently served by fiber or coaxial cable at at least $600 million. To promote digital equity for all Mainers regardless of zip code, in 2021 the state formed the Maine Connectivity Authority, a quasi-public agency to mobilize state and federal investments in broadband infrastructure through partnerships with private providers and rural communities.

Mills concluded her announcement by promising that “any person in Maine who wants a reliable and affordable internet connection” can have one by the end of 2024.

“That’s my promise,” she said.

Deploying fiber optic cables to remote regions is the first phase in fulfilling this promise.

Moore Fiber Solutions, a subcontractor for Premium Choice Broadband, had almost completed the installation of 60 miles of fiber optic cable as part of Dedham’s broadband infrastructure rollout.

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To bring fiber broadband to her rural town of 1,648, Dedham contributed $168,000 in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. A grant from Connect Maine (part of the Maine Connectivity Authority) provided $1.2 million. Premium Choice invested $1.9 million.

According to Bill Varney, CEO of Premium Choice, the entire project had exceeded the original budget of $3.2 million, although it still had many miles to go.

the last mile

In the past, many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have avoided this final link, known as the last mile, between the (ISP) network and users in homes and businesses. The rationale is that the cost of laying and maintaining fiber optic cables in remote regions is too high.

“Before we started laying fiber, some of these people only had a phone line, maybe dial-up,” Moore said.

Even when cables run close to a home or commercial building, getting the last strand of fiber to the building was a costly affair, especially in less densely populated areas.

“Few could afford it,” Moore said. “Last year when we were running cables, kids sat on their porch with no way to connect to school online. Getting fiber will change their lives.”

Moore added that no other type of internet can match fiber broadband. “It’s as small as a hair. It sends messages [at] straight into your home at the speed of light. It’s the best and fastest internet you can get.”

While critics in cash-strapped regions claim fiber is too much, broadband experts like Danny Sullivan, president of Downeast Broadband Utility, think otherwise.

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“We started with dial-up, then wireless, then fixed wireless. We went to the cable. We did satellites,” Sullivan said. “All of these technologies connect to the Internet backbone, which is already fiber optic.

“The problem for most rural locations, especially remote ones, is that the last mile (last stretch to the consumer) is via copper wire, wire or wireless landline because it’s cheaper. But it’s far inferior.”

Sullivan said that everyone — not just tech-heavy companies — needs the faster speeds that fiber optics make possible.

“Fiber is the only platform that offers the same download and upload speeds. Whether you are a content creator, a business, a healthcare facility, or even a retiree receiving telehealth care, fast upload speed is a basic necessity. It is time to stop reinventing the wheel and install fiber in businesses and homes in all communities, no matter how rural.”

To have and not to have

Elizabeth Neptune, a national consultant and content creator working out of the northernmost region of Maine, lives in Indian Township, one of the few rural communities with fiber broadband.

Recalling the day her fiber optic link was installed, Neptune laughed.

“I was like a six-year-old on Christmas morning. I was able to zoom with no problem. I could share Google Docs with organizations. When I had cable (internet) I paid three times as much and couldn’t even use Microsoft Teams for video conferencing. The upload speed was way too slow. Especially in bad weather it would get stuck and freeze.”

Asia Eaton, a 26-year-old new homeowner and college student living on the Maine coast, awaits the arrival of fiber optics.

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“The battle for the internet is real,” she said while brewing coffee at 44 North Coffee on Deer Isle. “The ISP in my new house had locked down my neighborhood because it had too many accounts. It made being an online student so hard. I put my work in a google doc and whenever I was in a place with internet, whether it was a library or a work, I saved it and then emailed it. It was hard. In the end I interrupted my education.”

As communities secure funding and residents wait for high-speed Internet, installers like Moore are laying fiber optic cables along Maine’s rural back roads. Moore looked up at his lineman, who was splicing cables.

“Forty years from now he’ll look up and say to his kid, ‘I built that. I helped rebuild America.’”

Carolyn Campbell is a freelance journalist who writes about rural communities across America. For the next three months she will be writing about Maine’s approach to bringing affordable high-speed internet to its rural residents.

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.