People are increasing their use of the Internet in ways that were hard to imagine even 10 years ago, says Axiom Technologies founder and Chief Executive Officer Susan Corbett. In 2005 when she founded her company, customers wanted Internet systems that might serve one home‑based computer. Now that same customer might have two laptops, an I‑pad, an I‑phone and movie‑streaming demands. "Take something like the I‑pad. That's a game changer," she says. "We're seeing an explosion of technological literacy in the county. And that includes businesses."
Serving the county's Internet needs has just gotten a little bit easier with the completion of the Three Ring Binder project. The project got off the ground in 2010 and utilized a U.S. Department of Commerce grant of $25.4 million, plus approximately $7 million in private funds to build "three rings" of fiber‑optic networks in rural Maine, one of which is in Washington County. The goal was to increase Internet access in areas of Maine that have been underserved by creating a "backbone" for Internet providers and others to build upon. Entering Washington County from Hancock County at Steuben, the county's network runs along Route 1 to Forest City Township, where it continues into Aroostook County.
Both Axiom and Pioneer Broadband Inc. have begun utilizing the new fiber-optic lines to begin upgrading equipment and connectivity speeds to existing customers as well as expanding to new areas. Axiom has expanded or will be expanding service to parts of East Machias, Brookton and Forest City. A tower under construction on Great Wass Island will bring service to the outer end of Great Wass as well as to Cape Split. Axiom is placing a "mini‑tower" in Jacksonville. The company is also looking at non‑line‑of‑sight technology for those areas that present geographic challenges to other types of Internet service technologies.
Pioneer has or will be expanding service to Big Lake Township, the Princeton area and increasing connectivity to Dennysville, Robbinston, Calais and Indian Township. Pioneer CEO Timothy McAffee says that the town of Lubec "is too far off the three‑ring corridor. We don't have enough customers that have expressed an interest." McAffee adds that if Pioneer hears from enough customers then the company would act to serve the area.
The beauty of it, says Corbett, is that because of the federal grant and the restrictions placed on the company that owns the new fiber lines, Maine Fiber Company, the cost to a company like hers to tap into the system is affordable, which translates to steady subscriber rates. Maine Fiber Company is restricted in how it calculates its charges to the $7 million of private investment, not the $25.4 million in federal funds. The company is also restricted to leasing out no more than 20% of the system to any one provider in a particular segment of the network. The restriction will allow the company to charge telecommunication providers a fee of $10 to $12 per strand, per month, per mile.
While Corbett explains that her company's mission is to bring broadband to every residence and business in the county, she points out that this is costly to do, even with the affordable fiber-optic provided by the three ring project. Subsidies and grants that could help with those costs may become available in the future.
The ConnectME Authority is one such source of grant funds, requiring matches of different percentages. According to McAffee, Pioneer's service to Big Lake Township was made possible through a grant partnership between Sunrise County Economic Council (SCEC) and the ConnectME Authority. SCEC Executive Director Harold Clossey explains that because Big Lake Township is part of the unorganized territory it qualified for Washington County Unorganized Territories' (UT) Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District funds that were then combined with ConnectME funds. Axiom, Pioneer and Fairpoint Communications are just three of many service providers in the state that have utilized ConnectME funding.
Clossey notes that his nonprofit is available to help communities find funding sources to help expand Internet services to their areas. UT areas are eligible to apply for TIF funds, "but certainly we can help other communities with ConnectME, USDA and CDBG," depending on funding cycles and requirements.
Businesses are getting into the act too, Corbett says. "There's a tremendous burst from businesses in Washington County. Why? Because many have broadband now. They have to upgrade; they need security and backup; they need help. We're seeing a big, big growth. Our techs are everywhere." She points out that only 50% of businesses in Maine have websites. Axiom has been offering classes to help. "We're seeing a huge spike in our digital literacy education." Last year there were 330 new students with over 3,000 learning hours. In September alone, 54 people signed up for classes. "Businesses know they need to know how to use it [the Internet]."
Maine Fiber Company board member and partner Robert C.S. Monks said during a recent press conference, "What is exciting is that completion of the Three Ring Binder means Maine has one of the strongest fiber-optic backbones in the entire country." He added, "A recent study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce cited this network and ranked Maine number one in the nation for business friendly infrastructure. ... To entrepreneurs and businesses all over America -- come build and grow your business here in Maine."
In prepared statements Senator Olympia Snowe and Senator Susan Collins commented on the project. Snowe said, "Through this incredible partnership, as well as the healthcare and higher education systems created with this endeavor, small businesses will now have a competitive edge in telecommunications access in Maine, which could not be more vital in these challenging economic times." Collins stated, "Broadband access is critical for education, healthcare, research and improves quality of life. Unfortunately, Maine has the lowest rate of service in New England for households with Internet access, and the areas of northern, western and central Maine are particularly underserved. The Three Ring Binder fiber-optic network broadband expansion will help close this digital divide and open new opportunities for job creation across our state."