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Maine County Receives Microsoft Grant to Provide Internet to Rural Homes

Microsoft has released a round of grants to several companies and municipalities who are bringing Internet connections to the underserved.

(TNS) -- Washington County, Maine, found itself Tuesday in the company of Rwanda, Malawi, Indonesia and several other developing nations.

They all were recipients of technology grants from Microsoft, part of a new program launched by the software giant to help remote and economically challenged areas make connections to the Internet. Here in Maine, Machias-based Internet service provider Axiom Technologies landed at $72,800 grant to provide Internet access to more than three dozen rural homes in Washington County, where it makes no economic sense to try to extend wired connections to the web.

“I see this as the beginning of a relationship with Microsoft,” said Mark Ouellette, president and chief operating officer of Axiom Technologies. “It really does open up the world to small businesses.”

The Redmond, Washington-based company on Tuesday awarded 12 grants through its Affordable Access Initiative, part of its commitment to invest $1 billion to bring the power of cloud technology to serve the public good. The grant to Axiom Technologies was the only one in North America. One grant was awarded in South America, one in Europe, five in Africa and four in Asia.

Axiom plans to use the money to wirelessly connect about 40 buildings, mostly homes, to the Internet using “TV white space,” which utilizes a portion of the broadcast spectrum that had been used to broadcast over-the-air television before those transmissions were switched to digital high-definition signals, said Ouellette.

That technology will allow the company to provide wireless Internet access to homes that are far from broadband wired connections. With the help of the Microsoft grant, the cost will be only $9.90 a month – about a quarter or less than the cost of a wired connection via a cable company – and users will also have access to a suite of cloud-based Microsoft programs, such as Excel and Word.

Ouellette said the hope is that the customers will have home-based businesses that will benefit from the access to the Internet and the software.

Most of the other projects funded under the grant program are aimed at connecting schools to the web for educational programing. One, in Uganda, will support an expansion of a network of small solar fuel cells to provide electricity to villages so they can power computers with connections to the web. A company in Argentina is working on a mobile platform chatbot using artificial intelligence to enable farmers to communicate with their animals and receive alerts and recommendations.

Projects in Philippines, Malawi and Botswana are also using TV white space to expand Internet access in remote parts of those countries.

Using the part of the broadcast spectrum abandoned by television stations is important, said Phil Lindley, executive director of ConnectME, a state agency that helps expand access to broadband Internet in Maine.

Unlike some other wireless technologies, TV white space doesn’t require line-of-sight corridors to allow connections, Lindley said, which is vital in heavily wooded parts of the state, like Washington County. Although the technology does not provide speeds comparable to the faster wired connections, TV white space offers a significant improvement over other ways of getting online, such as a dial-up connection using a telephone, he said. Axiom’s TV white space routers will connect to the state’s Three Ring Binder backbone, a 1,100-mile, 20 gigabit spine of broadband service that loops through rural parts of western, northern and eastern Maine completed two years ago, Lindley said.

“Using wireless is a good solution” to connecting homes that are so far off the grid that running a wire is prohibitively expensive, he said. Although a wired connection is still preferred because of the speed it offers, Lindley said, the cost and effectiveness of wireless connections is improving and could be very important in helping more Mainers in rural parts of the state get online,

As the technology improves, costs should come down, Lindley said, meaning more parts of Maine could be linked to the web using the wireless connections. That’s important, he said, noting that the state is, at best, in the middle-of-the-pack nationally in terms of home access to the Internet.

Maine has persistently finished in the bottom of broadband speed rankings. A study released last year by ConnectME noted 80 percent of Maine doesn’t have access to high-speed Internet service, which is defined as having 10 mpsb upload and download speeds.

Ouellette said some of the grant money will go toward classes for the new users, to help teach them the Microsoft programs they will have access to, as well as membership for Axiom in the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, a international group of companies and organizations focused on improving and expanding the use of the TV white space technology.

That could be a real key to the economic vitality of rural parts of the state, where poverty rates are highest, said Fletcher Kittredge, the chief executive officer and founder of GWI, an Internet service provider based in Biddeford. Kittredge was a key backer of the Three Ring Binder project to expand high-speed Internet access beyond the more developed southern half of Maine.

“There are places in Washington county that are really, really rural and where the connectivity is hard,” he said. “Affordability is so important in those areas.”

Ouellette said Axiom is still trying to decide specifically where to roll out the new connections, but he said the new system could be up and running by this summer.

Axiom is an Internet service provider with about 1,200 customers in Washington County, Ouellette said. It has 14 employees.

©2016 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.