It was only about 20 years ago when the popular use of dial-up internet hit the mainstream, changing the way the world communicates and completes business. Blast forward to the 21st century where high-speed internet has changed life further, affording many the freedom to create home-based businesses, provide financial savings via online learning as well as the ability to “cut the cord” from cable television.
But much like a well-traveled road that requires expansion to continue the swift pace desired, the speed and availability of the internet is quickly changing. For those in rural areas like Windham and Raymond, the internet is unable to keep up with the traffic and demands of its residents, students and business owners.
To sustain and improve upon the economic, educational and residential needs of the Lakes Region communities, an area coalition of business, municipal and residential partners are working together to stay ahead of the rapid and ever-changing scope of broadband internet connectivity.
The Lakes Region Broadband Partnership (LRBP) includes members from the commercial, residential, municipal and educational communities of Gray, Raymond, Standish and Windham.
The goal of the partnership is to not only sustain and improve the area’s internet access but by doing so, provide the region with an easy and affordable approach through an open access, community-owned broadband model.
Currently, broadband internet reaches area residents and business owners through an Internet Service Provider (ISP) which is a privately owned and closed model. The ISP also owns what is known and referred to as the backbone infrastructure from which all services are derived. As a result, ISPs can determine the cost of internet services and what types of services they will or will not provide to their customer. The most common and well-known ISPs in the area include Spectrum and AT&T, to name a few.
“What we have presently is a structural monopoly which holds the power in their [ISP] hands in terms of the cost and availability” stated Rep. Jessica Fay. “And for some folks in the area, it is too expensive under the current internet model. In fact, I recently spoke to a mother whose children need internet access to complete school projects, but because she is unable to afford internet, it puts her children at a disadvantage for educational success.”
President of St. Joseph’s College, Dr. James Dlugos, also expressed his thoughts on the advantages of open access and community owned broadband to education at large. “As you may know, Saint Joseph’s College not only educates 1,000 undergraduates on its Standish campus, but also offers dozens of undergraduate and graduate online degrees to over 2500 students from Maine and across the country,” he explained in an email interview. “As such, greater access to high speed connectivity expands the market for institutions like Saint Joseph's to provide online educational opportunities not otherwise available, especially to working adults.”
In addition to affordability and access to education, the present broadband connectivity is making it almost unfeasible to have a successful home-based business - or any business - in the Lakes Region. “Because my business in in technology, I must purchase the best and most up to date broadband connection available,” stated Technology Consultant for the Town of Raymond, Kevin Woodbrey. “But even with that, it is not enough. It is very difficult for me as a business owner to deliver my services on the infrastructure that now exists.” Woodbrey lives and operates his business in Raymond.
While Woodbrey works to back up important data and records for the Town of Raymond, which is required of all municipalities, he admits it is a difficult task. “To safely and securely store years of important data by trying to upload it to the Cloud is becoming nearly impossible.”
Fay reiterated Woodbrey’s concern, relaying the plight of another business owner who moved to Casco from South Portland. “The home-based business owner chose to purchase a home and move to Casco because he found that from all the other small communities he visited in the area, Casco is where he had the best internet service,” she continued. “But in order to do so, he has to pay the premium price, which is expensive. He considered another community in Maine first but since the connection was not available there, he chose to make his home and business in Casco.”
It is the priority of LRBP to establish broadband services in the business corridors and downtown areas within two years and then expand into more residential areas soon after. The hope is that businesses will remain in the Lakes Region while others will be attracted to the area. The initial project would install a fiber backbone starting in Standish and running across Windham to Gray Center, with an intersecting fiber backbone starting in Windham Center and heading to Raymond Village and the Raymond school campus. A spur to connect Saint Joseph’s College is also planned.
Legislation has been established to help rural communities in Maine increase broadband infrastructure and reliability. “The Legislature has enabled towns and cities to form Municipal Broadband Utilities and has provided a funding mechanism allowing these utilities to raise capital through Revenue Bonds,” explained Windham Economic Development Corporation Director, Tom Bartell. “We are also working with Cumberland County government, which has received grant funding through the CDBG Program to research which form of the Municipal Broadband Utility would be best for the region. Cumberland County government has also received CDBG funding to assist with the construction of the fiber backbone through certain portions of the region.”
Don Willard, Raymond’s Town Manager, stated that it was time for Maine to be a leader instead of a follower. “It is imperative to invest in our future. We must change and adapt if we are to remain economically viable, for not only businesses in the area, but for the community at large.”
Dr. Dlugos agreed. “From a social justice perspective, we support expanding access to high speed connectivity for rural communities as it helps level the playing field with regard to information access and access to educational opportunities. As institutions like Saint Joseph's continue to rely more heavily on off-site and "cloud" hosted systems, connectivity for on-campus students, faculty, and staff becomes more and more critical. Redundant high-speed fiber options are very limited for us now.” Dlugos also stated that high-speed internet promotes entrepreneurial activity.
Dr. Dlugos ended his statement: “Saint Joseph’s College supports this broadband initiative and looks forward to the social and economic advantages that it will afford citizens and business of this region.”
For more information regarding the Lakes Region Broadband Partnership or broadband connectivity in general, contact Tom Bartell at or 207-892-1936.