Maine Comes Out of the Dark and Into the Digital Age

As Rockport, Maine lights its municipal gigabit fiber-optic network, many other towns across the state contemplate the economic and quality of life benefits fiber promises.

by Bangor Daily News, McClatchy News Service / August 20, 2014

Maine has taken a small yet significant step toward the digital age, all thanks to Rockport’s recently unveiled municipal gigabit fiber-optic network, the first of its kind in the state.

Maine has sorely lacked the leadership needed to bring fiber to every home from Kittery to Fort Kent. Much of what has stymied the adoption of fiber is the view that few Mainers will ever want truly high-speed Internet and, if they get it, won’t use it. As it stands, only 1 percent of the state is wired with fiber, up from 0.9 percent in June, according to the National Broadband Map.

But the recent development in Rockport shows the demand is here, and Mainers are tired of waiting. Perhaps someone had to show the way.

The Rockport fiber network spearheaded by the town council, Maine Media Workshops and College, Networkmaine and GWI — that will provide service over the fiber — is modest in scope. Only a little more than a mile of fiber runs through the heart of downtown, connecting the Maine Media campuses and a score of buildings. Despite the limited range of the network, it could ultimately determine whether a Maine municipality can effectively maintain its cyberinfrastructure.

Rockport, which has a population of 3,300, according the U.S. Census Bureau, is joining a major league of municipalities that have moved forward with bringing much longed-for fiber to their residents. Rockport joins cities including Chattanooga, Tennessee; Austin, Texas; and Kansas City, Missouri. Even among these heavy hitters, Rockport has been the talk of the town for a number of major national and international news outlets.

As Rockport lights its fiber, many other towns across Maine contemplate the economic and quality of life benefits fiber promises. The network wouldn’t have moved forward without the support of businesses and institutions, as well as local taxpayers, who believed in the value of fiber. Private investment and revenue from the town’s Tax Increment Financing account funded the project.

For two years, a gigabit network has been in the works in Orono and Old Town, which, after an initial setback, moves forward as the two towns forge a municipal fiber corporation to bring the long-awaited fiber. Sanford and Islesboro are also examining the feasibility of municipally owned fiber, as the state government and major telecommunications companies sit on their hands.

Boosting the speed of Maine’s Internet will make the state a more competitive and attractive place for businesses. A study conducted in 2011 by the McKinsey Global Institute showed that, in 13 surveyed countries including the U.S., Internet contributes 3.4 percent of their GDP on average — on par with agricultural and energy sectors.

Additionally, the McKinsey study found the Internet to increase productivity in businesses by as much as 10 percent. These positive benefits are felt most strongly in small- to medium-sized businesses, according to the study, and Maine has plenty of small- and micro-businesses poised to reap fiber’s bounty. Fiber could even attract new enterprises, as has been the case in Chattanooga.

But reaping the full bounty of the digital boom requires smart investments in cyber infrastructure, another point highlighted in the McKinsey study. Maine, and the rest of the United States, is falling behind in crucial infrastructure development.

According to the Ookla Global Broadband report, the United States comes in at 23rd in Internet speed, behind Hong Kong, Singapore and Romania. Meanwhile, Maine bottoms out the list for the United States and, internationally, ranks below Macedonia. If investments like those in Rockport continue, Maine may soon wrest itself from its digital languor.

Even with the good news from Rockport, however, and despite the clear necessity, the time when fiber will be as ubiquitous as water and sewer utilities is still far off. But towns across the state would do well to take notice of Rockport’s example.

©2014 the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine)