Thursday, March 17, 2011

Broadband update: Internet service falling into place

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The details needed to understand where and how to best improve Maine's high-speed Internet connectivity are finally within reach. Even better, the funding and planning are under way. Three major developments have happened recently, and two more are on the horizon, that could hasten the dawn of a day in which Maine is no longer in the slow lane for Internet service.

The first development is THE BEGINNING OF WORK ON AN 1100-MILE FIBER-OPTIC NETWORK covering most of Maine. Called the "Three-Ring Binder" because it is designed with three interconnecting circles of fiber, the project, funded with private and state and federal government money. The network has six miles complete — including a section in downtown Portland — and when finished in two years' time will be open to any Internet provider as a super-high-speed link to the wider Internet. Key to this is that fiber-optic networking is largely considered "future-proof," meaning that as better transmission technologies develop over time, the fiber network itself will not need to be replaced or re-wired. Even though transmission equipment at connection points may need replacement, the money and time required is far less than re-creating an all-new network to parallel the old one.

The second development is the RELEASE OF A NATIONAL MAP OF BROADBAND ACCESS, complete with data on actual speed delivered by providers, number of companies offering Internet access in a particular area, and the means by which that access is provided (wireless mobile, cable-modem, DSL, etc.). In the words of Phil Lindley, executive director of the ConnectME Authority, the state agency tasked with expanding high-speed Internet access across Maine, "It's great to know where it is, but what's more important is for us to know where it isn't." Yes, the map shows empty spaces too — which will inform the selection process for the next round of ConnectME grants, to optimize investment in areas that most need help.

The third development is that NOBODY IS LOOKING TO FAIRPOINT COMMUNICATIONS FOR LEADERSHIP IN BROADBAND SERVICE anymore. The North Carolina-based company that operates the landline telephone network in Maine was expected to be a key element of providing 21st-century technology to rural parts of the state — and discussions of that prospect were key to state regulators' approval of the deal that allowed FairPoint to buy Verizon's landline system — even state officials now recognize that FairPoint is not a serious player.

While the company emerged from bankruptcy late last year, and did announce in January that it can provide faster-than-dialup service to 83 percent of Maine homes, the speed of FairPoint's service is the lowest that qualifies as "broadband" under state and federal guidelines. The company is still on its way to wiring up 87 percent of Maine homes by the end of 2014 — down from 90 percent, which was its original goal. As a sign of the times, though, if a proposal now before state officials moves forward, Maine's legal definition of the term may soon be accelerated, such that whatever FairPoint provides, it will be too slow to be labeled "broadband."

Coming up are two additional moves at the federal level with big promise for Maine. First is that the $8 billion annually raised by the Universal Service Fee (a surcharge on landline and cellphone bills alike) could be released to fund Internet expansion. At present, the fee is limited to supporting telephone service in rural areas, but bureaucrats are beginning to figure out that it's Internet access that is truly necessary everywhere in the country. A Federal Communications Commission decision on that could come later this year.

Also, the FCC is expected to release some additional radio spectrum for auction soon, with the goal that funds raised from the auction and most of the new bandwidth itself will go to reach 98 percent of Americans with Internet access at speeds five times faster than Maine's present minimum broadband speed.

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