Power Line Project Could Bring More than Electricity to Rural Maine

A nearly $1 billion hydropower transmission line project could also serve as a vehicle for fiber-optic broadband, officials say.

by Steve Collins, Sun Journal / July 19, 2018
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(TNS) — FARMINGTON, Maine — A little-noticed possible benefit of the proposed $950 million hydropower transmission line between the Canadian border and Lewiston is the opportunity it offers to extend high-speed internet into more of rural Maine.

Central Maine Power plans to include fiber-optic strands on top of its transmission towers with on and off ramps every three to five miles that would allow others to access it, said Doug Herling, the company’s president.

He said the details have not been worked out but the company is “very open” to talks with communities and others interested in accessing the wire for high-speed internet access.

“It could be a really big deal,” Heather Johnson, director of the ConnectME Authority, said Wednesday. But, she added, “the devil is in the details.”

Johnson said the route would cut through a swath of Maine that doesn’t have much fiber-optic access so there’s a chance the project could lower costs and improve access for many communities along the 145-mile route.

If it comes to pass, she said, it should prove especially good for Androscoggin and Somerset counties, which don’t have any cheap, all-access fiber lines now.

“We don’t have it all worked out yet,” Johnson said, but the company is talking seriously about how to mesh its needs with state efforts to improve broadband for residents and businesses.

She said a company would likely oversee use of the new line, if it’s constructed, and any profits may be poured back in to assist with the difficult task of installing wires for what’s commonly called “the last mile” to reach consumers.

It appears that the power company is generally willing to lend a hand.

“We’re not interested in this as a profit center,” said Thorn Dickinson, vice president for business development at Avangrid, the Spanish firm that owns CMP.

Broadband access along the route from Lewiston to the border would complement the Three Ring Binder project completed in 2012 that installed a fiber-optic line through many under served areas of the state.

The Three Ring Binder lines would intersect with the new transmission corridor in only one place — Farmington — so the rest of the proposed addition would venture into new territory for open access fiber.

Dickinson said the electricity company needs to use only a small portion of the available bandwidth in the fiber-optic line, leaving plenty of space for others to tap into it.

Johnson said the utility would likely have a couple of strands dedicated for its own use — ensuring security for its own data — but plans to have many more strands included for public needs.

Herling said the company opted to pay for a slightly more costly fiber-optic line in order to ensure plenty of excess capacity.

Dickson said CMP is excited about the opportunities the new high-speed access might bring to the communities along the route of the new transmission line.

“We are really open for ideas,” he said.

Johnson said Maine pays more to move data online than other states, such as Massachusetts, that have more “pipelines” and access. Generally speaking, she said, the more access is available, the cheaper it gets.

So adding another way for data to move through Maine would ultimately bring lower costs, a serious consideration for firms that rely on large-scale transfers of data.

She said that installing fiber-optic lines costs about $30,000 per mile so to have CMP add a line to its entire transmission corridor is no small thing. At that rate, it will likely cost the company more than $4 million to have the line, which requires repeaters at regular intervals to speed the data along.

Johnson said the ability to hook the proposed new line into the existing one in Farmington is also a benefit because it would provide alternative routes for data to take. She said a lot of data flows through Maine as it goes between Europe and Boston, so securing a different pathway improves the reliability of the whole system.

Because CMP is eyeing an open access line, Johnson said, it “can create new competition” all along the route, even in places like Lewiston that have private fiber-optic lines.

More access could help spur more growth in struggling areas of the state as well.

The state’s broadband action plan released in May says that high-speed internet “is now a necessary asset to attract and retain businesses and residents in Maine,” but most of the state’s rural communities lack access.

“This limits their ability to grow, innovate, support seniors staying in their homes, develop a strong workforce and to create an environment to attract business growth,” the report said.

The power company’s proposal to create the new line, which is meant to bring electric power from Hydro-Quebec to Massachusetts, is under consideration by state agencies. They are likely to decide by early 2019 whether to give the project a green light.

There is substantial opposition to it from other power producers, environmental groups and residents worried about potential negative impacts from the $950 million plan.

If it works out, CMP plans to start construction in 2019 and finish within a few years.

©2018 the Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.