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Maine's New Internet Highway System Complete
07/27/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

There's a new highway in Maine--Internet highway, that is. The Three Ring Binder project began two years ago as a public-private partnership. The goal was to bring high-speed Internet access to rural areas of the state, and it's essentially complete six months ahead of schedule and within its nearly $32 million budget. The 1,100-mile fiber network levels the cost and capacity of broadband throughout the state.

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Maine's New Internet Highway System Complete Listen

The network is literally made up of three rings that circle the outreaches of southern, Downeast, and northern Maine. It connects more than 100 communities, and spans over 110,000 households. Fletcher Kittredge is CEO of internet service provider GWI in Biddeford, which helped with the project. He says it's a giant leap forward for the state.

"What I think is really going to be remarkable--and we're already starting to see--is it's shrinking the distance between rural Maine and the urban U.S," Kittredge says.

That's because the rings also connect to Canada and to fiber networks further south. Kittredge says data traffic used to circumvent the state because there was no infrastructure to support it.

"The benefit to the people in Maine is instead of putting us off at the end, we're now in the middle of conversations that go between, say, Washington or Boston, or New York and Paris and London and Frankfurt," he says.

Phil Lindley is the director of ConnectME Authority, which was created by the Legislature in 2006 to increase broadband use and availability in the state. Lindley says the binder project fills a gap in Internet access that has long been sought in rural areas.

That's because the three rings are what's called a "middle mile" to Internet service. They're what Internet service providers link to in order to provide the "last mile" of broadband to homes and businesses.

"If the provider had better access to less costly back haul, or middle mile, which is what three ring binder is, they could go further out into the rural area with their last mile," Lindley says.

The cost of linking to that middle mile used to be exorbitant in rural areas. Susan Corbett is CEO of Axiom, an Internet service provider in Washington County. She says when she first opened her business in 2005, she got quotes for $30,000 a month to connect to a high-capacity link.

A few years later, she says the quote dropped to several thousand dollars. But she says that was still high, and above what it would have cost her if she was in Portland--about $800 a month. "It's an even playing field now," Corbett says. "It doesn't matter whether you have a business in Portland or in rural Maine--the cost for your Internet connection could be very much the same."

Corbett says she's now providing double the bandwidth to her customers without raising her prices, and she's already noticed a difference in customer satisfaction. "Here's what they're not doing: They're not calling in and saying, 'I can't get my Netflix to work.' That has all gone away."

Corbett expects the low cost and better access will be a boon to businesses in rural areas. Fletcher Kittredge of GWI agrees and says the project also benefits the world of telemedicine.

Kittredge says just over 90 percent of the state now has access to broadband. That still leaves about 50,000 households without. But with this major step towards universal broadband, Kittredge predicts a measurable economic impact on rural Maine and the state as a whole.


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