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