PORTLAND, Maine — The city of Sanford plans to start work next year on the state’s largest municipal broadband network, building a 32-mile extension of fiber-optic cable off the state’s open Three Ring Binder system.
The city announced its plan Monday during a regional broadband conference featuring panels about economic impacts of broadband expansion and collaboration between government and private companies to build out broadband networks.
Maine regularly ranks among the slowest states for average broadband speeds, and some municipalities have taken it upon themselves to fund expansion projects using fiber-optic cable.
Officials in Sanford, Maine’s seventh-largest city, said Monday that its $1.5 million project would be eight times larger than any other municipal network in the state, though other cities and towns are considering similar projects.
“The sheer size and scope of this undertaking is impressive, and that’s what I love about it,” Tom Cote, Sanford’s mayor, said in a news release. “This is a bold move that will make Sanford a technological standout in the Northeast, and very attractive as a place to start, modernize or move a business. This is a truly visionary step, and absolutely necessary to boost economic growth.”
During a panel at the conference Monday, Maine Public Advocate Tim Schneider said that higher speeds are important for some of the state’s far-flung businesses, like The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor and Woodland Pulp in Baileyville. But fast connections at those work sites are not enough, he said.
“[Employees] want to be able to monitor things from home, and that’s not a reality for them,” Schneider said, noting that some of those businesses are starting to view quality broadband access beyond their worksites as important.
Fiber optic networks are one part of that system, typically acting as a highway to the off-ramp of copper cables or phone lines that run to residential users. Fiber-optic cable has much higher capacity than the copper lines used to deliver phone and television service, which have been adapted to also provide Internet service.
The Camden-based wireless provider Redzone Wireless, for example, has expanded in the state from fiber-fed cell towers, from which it can reach customers with 4G LTE wireless systems similar to those serving data to smartphones.
Susan Corbett, CEO of the Machias-based Axiom Technologies, said solving Maine’s broadband access challenges will rely on a variety of technologies and providers.
The project in Sanford will extend the Three Ring Binder’s fiber into York County. Commercial or municipal customers can enter contracts for capacity on that larger open network, which is managed by Maine Fiber Co.
The city said construction on the open access fiber-optic network could start as early as the spring of 2016, using the Biddeford-based contractor GWI and the Rochester, New Hampshire-based fiber-optic network contractor NextGen Telecom Services Group. The city said the vendors were selected after soliciting proposals from 22 different companies.
Steve Buck, Sanford’s city manager, said that the plan could also accommodate extensions to other nearby towns, including Wells, Kennebunk and Alfred.
For that reason, Buck said, the financial details are still coming together for the project that could also seek state or federal grants for construction.
Under the agreement, GWI has a contract to operate the network for five years with an option to extend the contract for another five years. The city would own the network and it will be open to other Internet service providers. Buck said the city will have input on the rates charged to competitive providers who wish to use that network to serve customers along the way or build extensions from the city’s network.
Buck said the projected lifespan of the fiber network is between 20 and 25 years.
The city announced the deal during a broadband conference hosted by the group Next Century Cities and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at Portland’s Holiday Inn by the Bay.
The event featured presentations from national and regional leaders on issues related to broadband Internet, including executive branch technology advisers and federal and state representatives in Maine.
U.S. Sen. Angus King spoke at the event and applauded Sanford’s announcement in a prepared statement, saying that high-speed broadband “is the foundation for economic innovation and development in the 21st century.”
See the conference webcast live below.
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