Michele Richards, who works remotely for The Jackson Laboratory, talks about the difficulties of having slow internet speeds at her home. New infrastructure does not appear to be coming any time soon for her and her husband Jeff, despite government funding for expanding broadband in rural Maine. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

WINTERPORT, Maine — Michele Richards of Pineview Drive has a problem that will resonate with other Mainers who live even just slightly off the beaten path: the internet at her house is so slow that it’s affecting her ability to do her job.

Richards, who works remotely for Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor in human resources, needs to be on the computer all the time. She and her husband Jeff pay $70 each month to Consolidated Communications, the only internet provider to serve their road. In return, they’re supposed to get maximum download speeds of 10 megabits per second, but the internet that comes to their house on DSL technology is usually slower than that.  

Many Mainers have issues with internet connectivity, mostly because of the old copper wire phone network in place, especially in rural areas, according to Erik Garr, president of consumer and small business for Consolidated Communications. That company plans to add 150,000 homes this year to its fiber internet network and expand it by 450,000 residences over the next four years through a project partially funded by the state and federal governments. For people like the Richardses, whose internet comes over the slow copper DSL technology, fiber would be a game changer.

Michele and Jeff Richards talk about the difficulties they have with slow internet speeds at their home, primarily for Michele’s job. New infrastructure does not appear to be coming anytime soon for the Richards, despite government funding for expanding broadband in rural Maine. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

“That copper phone network is kind of like an old car. It’s past its useful life and is hard to repair. That’s why we’re spending as much capital [as we are],” Garr said.

Zoom calls and any other sort of video conferencing are an issue for Richards. Uploading big files of employee data can max out her system and cause problematic delays. And everytime she hears about the millions of dollars in funding that the federal and state governments are pouring into broadband expansion in rural Maine — $500 million at last count — it makes her wonder what it will take to bring the expansion to her house.

“My supervisor has actually mentioned that I may need to move if my internet service is not improved,” she wrote recently in a letter sent to Consolidated Communications, Gov. Janet Mills and the ConnectMaine Authority, a government agency meant to bring broadband to all Maine households and businesses.

Her supervisor was only being half serious, she said Friday — but he was making a point.

“My boss said, ‘The state’s getting all this money. Why can’t you get decent internet?’,” she said.

To them, it’s a reasonable question. The couple live on a private dirt road, but it’s just half a mile from the paved road and about a mile from a high-speed cable hub. There are 20 or so houses on that road, and all of the families that live there likely would enjoy having faster internet for school, work and entertainment purposes, she said.

Because of her job, Richards must work securely on a virtual private network, or VPN. Her supervisor told her that satellite internet, like Starlink, isn’t a good option for her. Cellular broadband, like Redzone Wireless, won’t work either because of their house’s location. So they are stuck with the slow DSL speeds.

It stung a bit when one of her Jackson Laboratory coworkers, who also lives in Winterport and works remotely, recently received an email saying her own internet service provider would upgrade her speed from 100 to 200 megabits per second — at least 10 times faster than what Richards has — at no additional cost.

With about 15 percent of Mainers lacking access to even basic internet service, according to the ConnectMaine Authority, it feels unfair and illogical to the Richardses that people who already have fast internet are getting upgraded.  

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Michele Richards said. “Everyone’s always talking about expanding broadband, but all they do is increase the speeds of everyone who already has it.”

That perception isn’t exactly the truth, according to Garr of Consolidated, one of the largest internet service providers in Maine. The company is expanding its fiber internet infrastructure in Maine as quickly as possible, he said. Funding comes from state and federal governments, its own investment in network upgrades and direct relationships with Maine towns.

The current FCC basic standard for broadband is 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads. Consolidated’s new fiber network will have 1 gigabit per second upload and download speeds. A gigabit connection can deliver information 1,000 times faster than a megabit.

“Maine is typically one of the least-fibered states in the country. There are fewer people in Maine with access to fiber than anywhere,” Garr said. “I think it’s kind of the beginning of a new day for Maine.”

But that day isn’t coming for the Richardses anytime soon. According to Garr, their neighborhood is not part of the company’s 2022 build plan. Because Consolidated Communications makes its plans annually, it’s too soon to know if Pineview Drive will be in next year’s plan.

Jeff Richards talks about the slow internet speeds at his home in Winterport. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

“These projects are thousands of miles of construction and hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “We are building a whole lot in Maine over the next several years. It’s like all things in life. Everyone wishes that we all had this infrastructure today. But to build a system of this size and scale is a five-year project.”

The Richardses wonder why the state is focused on fiber optic infrastructure, which is very expensive compared to high speed cable internet infrastructure. Maine could get better internet to more people with cable rather than fiber optic networks, they said. At their house, they don’t need one gigabit per second upload and download speeds, but they do need something faster than from four to nine megabits per second.

“The goal is to get everybody in Maine internet. We don’t need to make Maine New York City,” Michele Richards said. “We don’t all need fiber optic. Just give the people what they need.”