GOULDSBORO — Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor are exploring the option of joining or forming a municipal broadband utility to provide affordable, high-speed internet to year-round, seasonal residents, businesses and visitors on the Schoodic Peninsula.
The move comes as more than half of residents reported that their internet service is inadequate or they lack access in a recent public survey.
The Broadband Committee, whose 10 members represent both Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor, are looking at Maine’s first municipal broadband utility located in Washington County as a model. Four years ago, the Downeast Broadband Utility (DBU) chose to finance and build its own fiberoptic network in an 87-mile area and since has brought fast internet service to Calais, Baileyville, Alexander and Indian Township. The nonprofit corporation’s customer base totals more than 500 households. The monthly service costs $59.95 and delivers a download speed of 100 megabits (millions of bits) per second and upload speed of 20 mpbs. That is the broadband speed that the Federal Communications Commission seeks to set as an industry-wide standard in the United States.
In recent years, through a planning grant and providing technical assistance, the Island Institute helped the Cranberry Isles secure a $1.3 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to install high-speed broadband. The funds enabled the five-island town to construct its own broadband tower in 2018. In partnership with Machias-based internet provider Axiom Technologies, the fiberoptic cable was installed on three of the town’s islands (two islands have only a few seasonal inhabitants) and began operating in 2018. Island Institute is currently supporting several dozen coastal and island towns, including Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor, to undertake high-speed internet broadband projects tailored to their different settings, terrain, population and other factors.
Gouldsboro office supervisor and voter registrar Anne Laine, Schoodic Chamber of Commerce Vice President Sandy Fortin, Schoodic Institute’s IT Manager Roy Gott, Bob Bostino, Tom Towle, Mike Summerer, Roy Gruver and Tom Lloyd make up the peninsula-wide Broadband Committee, which was formed earlier this year. The move was spurred in part by the newly formed Maine Connectivity Authority’s “All-In” program to get high-speed internet access to every Maine resident by the close of 2024. To make that happen, the state broadband internet agency has $150 million to disperse through grants and incentives to be announced this fall. The funds come from the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress in 2021. Some $28 million is earmarked for rural underserved communities in parts of Franklin, Hancock, Knox and Lincoln counties.
Since last February, Laine says the committee has researched and considered various options to install the necessary infrastructure — copper wire versus fiberoptic — to make high-speed internet available to every household in Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor. Both towns include some seasonally inhabited islands. They concluded a fiberoptic cable network is the way to go. Fiberoptic cable is more secure and provides greater bandwidth and transmits far more data at much faster speeds from 100 mpbs up to 10 gigabits (billions of bits) per second. Fiberoptic cable contains one or more thin strands of glass and uses pulses of light — rather than electricity — and also results in less distortion.
In addition, fiberoptic cable is immune to moisture, temperature changes and severe weather, whereas copper cable is susceptible to environmental changes.
Earlier this year, the Schoodic Broadband Committee landed a $3,000 broadband planning grant from Island Institute to employ this past summer a community booster, Rhiannon Alley, to help research Maine broadband utilities and facilitate a public online survey to learn how Schoodic Peninsula residents currently get internet, the cost and quality of service. A total of 150 year-round and seasonal residents responded. The respondents reported poor download speeds and upload rates and other issues. Their internet providers were all over the map — from cable to satellite — and included Spectrum, Consolidated, Hughes Network, Axiom Technologies, Comcast, U.S. Cellular, Oxford Networks, Charter Communications and aerospace entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Starlink.
In addition, the Schoodic Committee was awarded a $5,000 grant from ConnectMaine to formulate and present a broadband plan for townspeople’s review and approval. The funds will facilitate further grant-writing once a peninsula-wide broadband plan has been endorsed.
“We’ve looked at all the different models — successful and unsuccessful,” Laine recently reported. “We think the evidence is pointing to have it [provide internet service] as a utility rather than be at the mercy of the provider.”
Laine said the next step is to pinpoint and map the Schoodic Peninsula’s current internet users and the utility poles that service providers connect to. In coming weeks, she and Gouldsboro Deputy Town Clerk Brianna Mitchell plan to use town tax maps and E911 addresses as they travel the peninsula’s roads and driveways to locate and log the households and poles. The info is critical to determine how much fiberoptic cable would be needed to form a high-speed network and local broadband utility. Because of demand, the price of fiberoptic cable has dropped, but delivery is delayed and currently taking almost six months once orders are placed.
Whether they opt to form or join a broadband utility, Downeast Broadband Utility President Daniel Sullivan urged the Schoodic towns to move ahead and take advantage of ConnectMaine Authority’s $150 million funding “All-In” program and abundant related resources such as Island Institute’s Broadband Team. Sullivan, who has worked as Woodland Pulp LLC’s IT manager since 1998, notes such substantial grant opportunities were unavailable when Calais and Baileyville joined forces and formed DBU in 2017. The move followed the towns’ failed efforts to persuade internet providers to expand and upgrade their services.
Calais and Baileyville reached out to local banks and secured a two-year line of credit for $2.9 million (at 1.99 percent interest) from The First National Bank. All principal payments were deferred for two years. The $2.7 million project entailed construction of the fiberoptic network and a central office in each town.
“The bank entered into the agreement knowing that DBU would be paying the loans back for the towns from the revenue coming in from subscribers to the internet service,” Sullivan explained Monday. “This protected the bank in case DBU were to not make it and not be able to generate enough revenue to pay the loans back.”
That worst-case scenario did not happen as Alexander and Indian Township joined. Cooper and Princeton are signing on too and other communities have expressed interest.
“We are signing up new customers daily and the model has worked well enough for The First to finance the Alexander build and Machias Savings is financing the Cooper & Princeton projects,” Sullivan said. “In a nutshell, the network that is owned by the respective towns of DBU is built by the subscribers who buy internet service from one of our ISP’s that in turn makes the connection to the internet.”
After securing financing, DBU contracted Houlton-based Pioneer Broadband to build its fiberoptic network comprising nearly 3,000 properties. Pioneer continues to maintain the system that went online in 2019. The state-of-the-art service was envisioned and is being used as a tool to draw new residents and businesses to the Downeast region.
“It’s a major factor for attracting families and businesses,” Laine said. “Anyone who wants to run a business out of here, they’ve got to have it.”
For more info, contact Schoodic Broadband Committee Secretary Anne Laine at 963-5589 and email@example.com.