News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 23, 2018
Stonington tackles ‘digital divide’

Henry Teverow

Stonington Economic Development Director Henry Teverow says the town could have improved broadband service as early as 2020 if approved by voters. 

Photo by Tina Oddleifson Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Tina Oddleifson

Stonington residents may be on the road to obtaining faster, more reliable internet service. At a public information meeting on August 15, Stonington Economic Development Director Henry Teverow updated residents on efforts to improve broadband service.

In April, a request for information was sent to 10 internet service providers, asking them to submit proposals for providing affordable high speed service to all residents, using technology that would be relevant for years to come. Of those who responded, Axiom Technologies, based in Machias, was selected to conduct an engineered infrastructure plan for the town. The plan is being paid for using a $15,000 grant from the Island Institute with a partial match from municipal funds, and is expected to be finalized in the upcoming weeks.

Axiom Technologies is a for-profit company with a mission to help Mainers bridge the “digital divide” that prevents rural residents from accessing the same economic, educational and cultural information as urban dwellers. It currently serves almost 50 communities in Washington County, and is expanding its geographic reach.

High speed internet crucial to town’s future

Securing reliable high speed internet is one of the economic development priorities identified in the town’s comprehensive plan, which was formally adopted by voters in March. Demographic trends in Stonington show that the population is aging and declining, as younger residents leave in search of greater opportunity. The long term viability of the town depends on diversifying its economy, say town officials, and offering quality education and accessible healthcare services to attract new residents.

High speed internet plays a crucial role in this effort by opening up new markets for locally produced goods and services, and attracting people and businesses who can work remotely, according to information presented at the meeting. It helps connect students to online classes through video conferencing and allows them to meet requirements for digital homework. It also delivers “telemedicine” that monitors the health of patients remotely, cutting down on travel costs and allowing seniors to age at home.

Broadband (as opposed to dial-up) is the most common form of internet service today. It does not refer to a specific technology, but rather a level of reliable service that meets certain minimum rates of download and upload speeds measured in megabytes per second (mbps), as defined by state and federal governments. But depending on where you live, internet service is delivered in ways that can impact the speed, cost and reliability of the service.

Older infrastructure and the limited reach of cable and DSL services, seasonal fluctuations in usage that slow speeds, and prohibitive data caps on some types of wireless service have meant that most residents on Deer Isle do not enjoy the benefits of broadband. “We have a kind of middle purgatory level of service that is a little better than “underserved,” but that is because the government’s definition is preposterously low,” said Teverow.

The reason for this is simple economics, he said. There are not enough people in rural areas to justify corporate investment in improved infrastructure. Not surprisingly, neither Consolidated Communications nor Spectrum, the two major internet providers on the Island, responded to the RFI from the town.

Maine towns develop new strategies

To address this problem, communities across Maine are taking matters into their own hands. Ten Maine towns have established their own municipal internet companies, and others have developed public private partnerships to deliver high speed internet to residents. Recently Islesboro and the Cranberry Isles brought fiber to the premises (FTTP) to their islands. Fiber optics is the gold standard of internet delivery usually found in urban areas, with speeds measured in gigabytes.

In their response to the town’s request, Axiom Technologies said they would propose FTTP for Stonington, because “it is the most reliable and easiest to scale technology, giving an individual business or home the ability to increase their Broadband speeds over many years.”

When asked how the new infrastructure would be funded, Town Manager Kathleen Billings, responded that “a big part of this whole thing is what the take rate is” referring to the number of residents who would subscribe to the service. She is hoping that a combination of newly available state and federal grants, private funds and a potential revenue bond could move the town forward. In one of the most notable successes, Axiom helped the Cranberry Isles obtain a $1.5 million grant from the USDA to fund their internet project.

Public support for the initiative will take voter outreach and education, and Teverow says he is cautiously optimistic it will move forward. In a survey being conducted by the town, responses so far indicate that the majority of people experience regular problems with the internet on a weekly, if not daily basis. Seventy-five percent said they would spend more time and do more business in Stonington if the internet was better.