Ellsworth broadband speeds still have some catching up to do



ELLSWORTH — Residents in Ellsworth have internet connections that are slightly faster than much of Maine but far slower than the nationwide average, according to a report released by BroadbandNow, a private company that analyzes data on internet service providers around the country.

Internet speed is measured by how quickly data — such as receiving an email or viewing a web page — is transferred from the internet to a computer (download speed) and how quickly information is transferred from a computer to the internet (upload speed).

It is generally measured in megabits per second (Mbps), with a “bit” being a small unit of data. The term “broadband” once had a technical meaning, but is now generally used to refer to any high-speed internet that is always on (as opposed to services such as dial-up).

The average download speed in Ellsworth, according to BroadbandNow, is 25.19 Mbps. This is just slightly above the threshold to be considered “broadband” in the eyes of the Federal Communications Commission, but still 8 percent faster than the average download speed in Maine and 62 percent slower than the national average.

How fast a connection needs to be depends on what is being done and how many users are accessing the service at any one time. Basic email and watching a YouTube video? Less than 1.5 Mbps. Online gaming? Between 6 and 10 Mbps. On the higher end of the spectrum are video conferencing and medical image consultation, which require download speeds between 50 and 100 Mbps. Service must also be reliable, affordable and consistent.

Fast internet is critical for nearly every aspect of life in the 21st century. Hospitals require it for electronic medical records and telehealth; schoolchildren need it for homework and research, businesses use it for sales and inventory. Seniors may take advantage of virtual health care to be able to stay in their homes. But access across the country is not equal, leading to what is often called “the digital divide.”

The divide is starkest between rural and urban areas, but it is also socioeconomic: “Maine citizens who are older, lower income, unemployed and have lower levels of education are less likely to have high-speed internet,” wrote authors of a 2016 report issued by ConnectME, the agency tasked with expanding broadband coverage in the state.

Some residents may have broadband available in their area but do not subscribe. Surveys have found that those who don’t subscribe may decline to do so because of “lack of perceived value,” as well as price and concerns about privacy and security.

There also appears to be a political component: according to a neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis of broadband access by the Brookings Institution, “Republican members of Congress disproportionately represent populations without physical access to high-speed internet. Overall, Republican House members serve districts where 89.4 percent of residents can physically access a wireline broadband connection … By comparison, Democratic House members represent districts with 97.5 percent coverage.”

In Ellsworth, city officials have tried to help bridge these gaps. Last year, the city celebrated the “lighting” of the city’s three miles of fiber optic cable, and this year applied for grant funding to add an extra mile of redundant cable to create a backup loop in the event of technical issues. (Fiber optic cables transmit light rather than electrical signals, allowing information to be sent much faster.)

The three-mile cable runs from the Union River Center for Innovation on Water Street to State Street, behind City Hall and over to Oak Street and then out High Street to Beckwith Hill, with a hub station on Water Street.

The project is known as community-owned broadband infrastructure, or COBI. Internet service providers, or ISPs, often do not have the incentive to build the expensive physical infrastructure (cables, wireless-access points) necessary to deliver high-speed internet to a region, which has been a persistent problem in the expansion of internet services in rural areas.

Under the COBI system, a municipality builds and owns the physical infrastructure, which providers sign up to use, the intention being to create competition among providers and lower prices.

The state also is tackling the issue. ConnectME is in the midst of a project to provide 99 percent “of all potential subscriber locations” access to “at least one broadband provider with sufficient capacity for full participation in our society, democracy and economy, to enable civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning and access to essential services” by 2021.

Mobile download speeds are another story. Maine had the fourth slowest mobile download speeds in the country last month, according to Speedtest, ranking behind Wyoming, Alaska and Mississippi. Massachusetts, by comparison, had mobile download speeds among the top six fastest in the nation.

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Southwest Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]