Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mapping the Internet: Starting to clear Maine’s broadband backlog

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The biggest obstacle between Mainers and more, better, faster broadband Internet access (or, in many rural communities, anything better than dial-up) is actually a very basic one: there's a lack of information about what kind of Internet service is already available where. But $1.3 million in new federal money may help solve the problem.

The public has an interest in knowing as much as possible about the state's Internet infrastructure — where it is, how fast, who offers it — because of how much that information can affect the spending of tax dollars and economic-development efforts. It's almost a truism among business and state-government leaders that high-speed Internet access is key to saving what remains of Maine's economy. (For example, Democratic 

Governor John Baldacci said back in October, "As we work to grow Maine's economy and provide opportunities to our people, improved broadband access is critical.")

But big businesses like TimeWarner Cable and smaller ones like Maine Wireless in Waterville know where their own coverage areas are, but keep it to themselves as proprietary information that could help competitors.

Last year the state's ConnectME Authority began a two-part project to map the companies providing Internet access in Maine and the types of service they provide. The first part, worth $450,000, was to be paid for with state funds over three years beginning in September, with James Sewall Company, an Old Town-based mapping and engineering company, compiling a list of Maine providers, getting basic information from them, and updating the records every six months.

The second phase, which was contingent upon the $1.3 million in federal funds just awarded to ConnectME as part of the Obama administration's stimulus package, will expand the amount of data gathered and make the maps far more detailed.

The goal, according to ConnectME executive director Phil Lindley, is to get "granular data" on where Mainers do — and don't — have high-speed Internet access. The idea is that a person could come to a state Web site, enter their home address, find out what companies provide what types of service, and even connect directly to those companies to learn more details, such as monthly cost and installation fees.

Lindley's organization (he's the only staffer, but he has a board of advisers) is primarily focused on giving state money (collected from Internet and telephone users in their monthly bills) to projects that extend broadband services to areas presently without it. He doesn't have much money — over the past three years he has given out less than $3 million, and is accepting grant applications for roughly $1 million in new money to be given out later this year.

So far, he has been limited to areas where there's no doubt about a lack of Internet access. But as the work progresses, those areas shrink, and a map becomes more necessary to determine where future projects should receive public funding. (The authority is barred from funding projects that would be built independent of public money.)

He's not sure how much of the information the survey gathers will be public in the end — those companies are often quite secretive about the actual equipment and speeds they offer, not wanting competitors to know or guess their plans for the future.

No laws require the companies to cooperate — unless they receive federal funds to expand their own broadband operations. And federal and state laws and rules allow lots of protection of company data. "A lot of it's going to be moral suasion on my part," Lindley says. But apart from some basic questions about the rules for confidential and proprietary information, "we haven't gotten any pushback yet."

A key piece of information is about the actual speeds available to customers. While at the moment, state efforts are focusing on getting broadband to where people are still suffering with dial-up, at some point state efforts will need to boost broadband speeds too. (And there's no time like the present, in the wake of the latest Akamai "State of the Internet" report, which shows that other countries — even non-tech-mecca places like Romania and the Czech Republic! — are boosting broadband speeds far faster than the US, which actually saw speeds fall in 2009.)

Lindley is hoping to get very detailed information that will at least be available to state officials planning where to spend public money, even if it's not available to the wider public.

He expects preliminary results before summer, which will give a taste of how much Maine's 21st-century utility companies support openness. What info there is will be online at

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Quake Response: Boston organization fighting good fight in Haiti

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

Good news from Haiti: the catastrophic earthquake that struck this Caribbean nation last week did no damage to the 10 Haitian-run hospitals and clinics aided by the Boston-based charity Partners in Health (PiH). Each of the 10, which offer free care to all comers — and were founded by Paul Farmer of Harvard's medical school, in conjunction with Haiti's health ministry — swung into action immediately after the quake struck.

Bad news from Haiti: those clinics and hospitals, which are staffed almost entirely by Haitians, are in the rugged rural interior of the country, hours — and in some cases days, on rough roads and mountain paths — of travel from the hard-hit capital city of Port-au-Prince.

Even worse news from Haiti: conditions in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere are so terrible, and medical help so scarce, that quake victims, some with grievous injuries requiring amputation, have no choice but to make the difficult overland journey to the PiH centers.

"It's been a horrifying catastrophe," says Pulitzer Prize–winning author Tracy Kidder, whose 2003 best-selling book Mountains Beyond Mountains (Random House) introduced the world to the dauntless, tireless Farmer and his organization.

Many outlets offering relief and support to Haitians were headquartered in Port-au-Prince and were effectively decapitated by the January 12 quake, which struck just 16 miles west of the capital city and measured 7.0 on the Richter scale. But PiH, which employs more than 100 Haitian doctors and thousands of community health workers, is intact — its major hospital is in Cange, several hours northeast of Port-au-Prince.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, that hospital has expanded to make use of space in a neighboring church and a school. "There are patients all over the place," says Kidder of the reports he and PiH are getting from the clinics, adding that PIH is also striving to send medical workers to the urban-relief efforts even while handling the massive influx of new cases.

Kidder, who lives in Massachusetts and Maine, is adamant that Haiti needs not just relief money, but a societal change in which its people have more of a say in how the nation develops. He has argued that the international aid now pouring into one of the world's poorest countries be the start of a new chapter for Haiti, rather than just a temporary boon to assist with rescues.

Many people — worried about the looting and civil disorder in Haiti in the wake of the earthquake — are skeptical of giving aid and about Haiti's future, but Kidder asks, "how would New Yorkers, or any Americans, respond" in identical circumstances, with no food, shelter, water, and only the clothing on their backs — and with no certainty that loved ones were safe, or even alive?

The relief effort has also been hindered by the racism and religious intolerance of those like evangelist Pat Robertson, who blamed the tragedy on a "pact with the devil." Kidder's response to Robertson? "If there's an Antichrist, then he might be it. You can quote me on that."

Kidder remains hopeful about Haiti's future, but only so long as international support is both generous and concerned about the long term. He recalls the Haitian proverb that inspired the title of his book on Farmer, PiH, and Haiti: "Beyond mountains there are mountains." Haitians use this proverb in two ways, he says: "There is no end to obstacles — but there is no end to opportunities."

To make a donation to Partners in Health, visit

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Good starts: Maine journalism shows some promising new lights

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It's a new year, and Maine journalism is worse for the battering it took in 2009. But there are some new lights appearing on the horizon that might just make things a little brighter.

The first is a new endeavor founded by yet another of those recently-unemployed daily-newspaper journalists, the MAINE CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEREST REPORTING, led by former Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel publisher John Christie.

From his first story, published last week, it appears Christie will be resurrecting a journalistic endeavor long missing from Maine's mainstream press: holding powerful people accountable for their actions.

The debut story was based on an age-old premise: money and personal connections drive politics. But exactly how that happens in Maine has been under-covered, thanks to pols' and journos' often-friendly relations (see "Our Journalism Echoes Our Politics," by Lance Tapley, August 3, 2009).

In a story posted online at and printed in the Bangor Daily News, the Lewiston Sun Journal, and two weekly papers in the midcoast, the Ellsworth American and the Mount Desert Islander, Christie made clear how Governor John Baldacci thanks his friends.

Specifically, people who raised money for Baldacci's political campaigns and have known him for many years can get special favors from him, even — indeed especially — in tough budget circumstances.

Christie fills his story with quotes from State House players asserting that, as we all know, politics is personal. And when Baldacci weakly protests claims that he made a political decision — carving out an exemption to a new sales-tax expansion — to help his friends and benefactors in the skiing and real-estate businesses, Christie not only quotes his anemic reply ("the facts don't bear it out") but shows those facts clearly, as they do bear out the very allegation Baldacci denies.

It is a bit sad to be singling out this effort. It is basic, straightforward, workaday journalism that should never have been missing from Maine's daily newspapers. It should not have taken a startup nonprofit to ask why the governor's demands were so specific, and limited to inside players. But it did, and we're glad it's back.

And while the Portland Press Herald and its sister papers are not publishing Christie's work (Christie was let go when Richard Connor took over the company), there are small signs of a NEW WATCHDOG MENTALITY at Maine's largest newspaper company, too. It's not just that Connor has added one more capitol reporter — which he has done.

Over the past week, the Press Herald newsroom has been on top of a small-potatoes story, but in a way that portends better government scrutiny than officials have been used to of late.

Starting on January 5, with a front-page story entitled "At Deering Oaks, That Familiar Sinking Feeling," the PPH has demonstrated an institutional memory many feared lost. That first story reported that a snowplow machine had sunk in Deering Oaks Pond the previous day. But it went much deeper, digging up PPH archive photos from three previous times Portland's public-works department had done the same thing, all the way back to 1987. Two days later, the paper reported that the estimate for fishing the Bobcat out of the pond was not the $500 city officials initially claimed, but rather $5000. One day after that, the paper reported that the city's policy for clearing snow from the pond requires the ice thickness be checked before the plow sets out, and quoted city sources saying that hadn't happened. It's not government waste or incompetence on a grand scale, but it's a beginning.

These are excellent signs, and we look to a bright future in which we learn who else is courting our governor (and the candidates to replace him), and the discipline meted out to whomever it was who violated Portland's snow-clearing policies and cost taxpayers $5000 they don't have.