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Lessons Learned from Successful Community Broadband Projects

 

Municipal broadband projects continue to tantalize Mainers, 115 of whom attended a conference in Hallowell last month.  Sponsored by CEI, The Island Institute and NeighborWorks America, the gathering featured presentations on successful municipal and regional broadband projects, including Maine’s own Islesboro initiative.  In addition to success stories, panelists presented valuable information on federal funding sources and funding from banks using the Public Welfare Investment Authority.  

The majority of participants represented municipalities or economic development regions in Maine.   Attendees have a strong commitment to their respective communities and are anxious to know whether an investment of time and funds will in fact improve the economics for their constituents.   So what has happened in cities and towns that put in the time and effort to build out fiber optic last-mile infrastructure and established municipal broadband services?  Preliminary data show an increase in real estate values for connected homes, and there are indications that fibered cites like Chattanooga, TN are attracting new businesses that might otherwise have located in another city.  Several people observed that pairing Maine’s quality of life with affordable gigabit broadband will attract new small businesses, or at least encourage those with second homes in the state to stay longer and spend more here.   Much of the early information is anecdotal, and participants communicated a need for more ongoing factual research on the economic benefits of affordable fiber optic based broadband.   

It remains true that certain circumstances are more likely to result in a successful broadband initiative.   Municipalities that already operate an electric utility (and there are few in Maine) have a head start – they already work with utility poles and have rights of way to serve their jurisdiction.  For example the Town of Leverett which has its own electric utility, built fiber to every home and contracted with an ISP to provide services over the fiber.  Even with an incumbent electric utility, a sustained and creative local citizen initiative was necessary to turn this idea into a reality.  Now, 80% of citizens in Leverett subscribe to the Town broadband.  

A sustained five year effort by Page Clawson and others on the Island of Islesboro was largely responsible for a program that will provide 100% fiber coverage for homes and businesses there.  With no cable TV incumbent on the Island, there were fewer competitive threats to a municipally built fiber network, and a lower general cost for attaching to the utility poles.    Once again though, a small group of local residents took the ‘long view’, educated themselves and other islanders, and relentlessly pursued the funding and approvals needed to turn this idea into a reality.  This is an amazing Maine success story.

Other successes include EC Fiber, operating 300 network miles in east central Vermont.  This is a unique partnership between a cluster of 24 towns and a private non-profit operating company.   Started on shoestring budget in 2008, they crowdsourced funding until this year, when an institutional investment was landed.   EC Fiber also benefitted from grants and open-access fiber trunk routes provided by Vermont’s Department of Public Service.  Maine has not funded open access fiber builds of this type, although the ConnectME Authority has provided funding to private operators seeking to extend broadband.   MFC’s ‘Three-Ring Binder’, funded by a federal grant and matching funds from local investors, is the only open-access non-discriminatory fiber network in Maine.          

Conference participants were both encouraged and humbled by this handful of municipal fiber success stories.   A well-informed and persistent local advocacy group is critical for any successful community broadband initiative, as is public funding of some type and magnitude.   It remains to be seen if any state or federal funding will be available for these types of initiatives.  If the best predictor of the future is the past, we should expect a continued need to bootstrap funding for this critical enhancement to Maine’s economic infrastructure.