Blue Hill Peninsula residents push for expanded broadband service



BLUE HILL — Steven Keirstead and his husband, Lansing Wagner, frequently find themselves walking to the East Blue Hill Library to upload large files or download videos because they can’t get wired internet service to their home.

“Now we’re retiring from Harvard, so we’re living here full time at the house,” said Keirstead. “But we can’t get wired internet because Consolidated [Communications] has used up all their capacity in the area. So, we’re just waiting until someone leaves and disconnects their service or they expand service.”

The couple use their iPhones as Wi-Fi hot spots for web browsing but it isn’t an ideal situation, and there are data limits.

“We were living in Boston and had just gotten Verizon fiber installed a few months before we left, which was quite wonderful,” Keirstead said. “So now we’re back to the old days of the internet.”

“One funny thing is Consolidated doesn’t even have a waiting list you can get on so you would know if a line’s available, so you have to keep calling them back, which is very frustrating,” he said.

Keirstead is a photographer and invested in a quality printer. He said he could have a business shipping prints all over the country if he had a strong connection or any wired internet connection to receive large files from customers. “That’s not really practical over a cell phone connection,” he said.

Shannon Sullivan, a spokeswoman for Consolidated, said Tuesday that there are two sites in Blue Hill where the company has been working to add capacity.

“One site is scheduled to be completed before the end of the year,” said Sullivan. “The other site requires some costly augmentation and is currently being reviewed as we plan for upcoming capital allocations. Before we can determine availability in a specific location, we must work through a build evaluation process to look at any required investment and related timeframe.”

“We understand the heightened sense of urgency to get customers connected and keep them connected as more people work and learn from home,” Sullivan said. “We are working hard every day to manage the network, upgrade facilities as budgets and time allow and balance business priorities. Realizing more can be done with the support of state and federal partners, we are also working diligently to secure additional funds needed to support this costly effort.”

Butler Smythe of Blue Hill helped organize Peninsula Utility for Broadband [PUB], an association of eight towns from Castine to Stonington. The group states it is “working toward the future for the survivability and the success of our communities. That success relies on bettering what is available to attract and retain people who are willing and able to stay and move here to live and to work. One of those key elements in facilitating that is broadband.”

In Blue Hill, there are four “remote terminals,” all funded through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to provide DSL internet service, Smythe explained. The two most recent terminals, one on Morgan Bay Road that Keirstead would ideally connect to and one on Pleasant Street, are at capacity, Smythe said. “If someone builds a house next to one of these boxes, they can’t connect until Consolidated adds circuit boards.”

“The federal government should be holding providers accountable to accommodate existing people as well as some future growth,” Smythe said.

Smythe also would like local selectmen to communicate with internet providers about where the problems are and demand a solution. Speaking as a private citizen doesn’t carry the same weight as an elected official, he said.

Internet companies say they have been working with local officials and residents, but money is a factor.

“We have a long history, working and reviewing new service opportunities, as they’re requested, with the local municipalities and residents of the Blue Hill Peninsula,” said Spectrum spokeswoman Lara Pritchard. “We continually look for opportunities to extend our connectivity services to additional homes, businesses and new customers — and built out to 7,000 homes and businesses in Maine last year. A variety of factors affect our buildout decisions, including the number of homes and businesses we can serve, geographic and construction challenges and overall economic feasibility.”

The lack of internet connectivity has been an issue for some families who transitioned to remote learning last spring.

School Union 93 closed schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March. But, there are more than two dozen families without internet access at home. Those families might have used internet at the library for schoolwork, but all the libraries were closed. So, the union provided Wi-Fi hot spot devices to those families so students could do their work. George Stevens Academy held a fundraiser to purchase Wi-Fi devices for its students without access.

Last month, Maine voters — 76 percent of them — authorized a $15-million general obligation bond for the ConnectME Authority to provide funding for high-speed internet infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas.

A timeline and details for accessing those funds haven’t yet been established, Smythe said on Friday during a meeting of Peninsula Utility for Broadband. “One of the big things we can be doing locally is to get the word out and get local buy-in and interest so when funding does become available, we can get more involved.”

“The impact of COVID for work, for school, for education has hopefully connected more people to this problem,” Smythe said.

Another member of the group, Hannah Barrows of Stonington, said ConnectME would be doing a project soon on internet speeds to determine if providers are accurate in their speed estimates and where speed is lacking. The authority is looking for as many people as possible to run speed tests.

You can find out how to run a speed test as well as a host of other information at http://www.peninsulautility4broadband.org/.

Smythe said many people who are having problems with internet speeds or routers “locking up” could help themselves by turning off automatic updates on their smartphones and tablets.

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.

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