Wired for Future: How broadband bridges gaps between countryside and city

    Sanford's municipal-owned fiber broadband project, SanfordNet Fiber, is planned to launch between April and July. (WGME)

    SANFORD & MILLINOCKET (WGME) -- “We want to be known as ‘gig city’: as fast as you can get anywhere in the world,” said Jim Nimon, Exec. Director of the Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council.

    Nimon is talking about the city’s municipal-owned fiber broadband project—SanfordNet Fiber—that is planned to launch between April and July to serve 88 commercial buildings with 44 miles of gigabit fiber connections at a cost of $2.3 million. It’s one example of dual approaches to securing competitive highspeed internet: government or private-led endeavors.

    “Broadband in some respects is the electricity of a hundred years ago—today,” said Ryan Wallace, Economics Director at the Muskie School.

    Business owners in Millinocket have been spearheading an effort in a remote, rural area that has given opportunity that a decade ago was inconceivable.

    "We would have to either take a hard drive and send it in the mail. or put it on a bus and have it couriered up to our video editor because it was just impossible to transmit files,” said Jess Masse, of the Millinocket Broadband Coalition.

    Masse’s company, Designlab, depends on the internet in her countryside community.

    “High speed internet allows us to be in Millinocket because we can connect with clients all over the country and live in a place that we love,” Masse said.

    The private-led project was buoyed by “Our Katahdin” and other business collaboratives after pitches to government to close the gap on grants didn’t materialize. The need was immediate and accessible—at a cost—of $2,000 to tap into the established fiber network.

    “But every tap-in will now get cheaper,” Masse said.

    For Millinocket, broadband was a lifeline to save what could have been strangled businesses. In Sanford, the need is to revitalize a city’s business prospects to attract employers and retain residents as employees.

    "The numbers that we looked at--over a 10-year period--were in the range of $47 to $191 million for bumps in business productivity,” said Nimon.

    Sanford municipal officials say they were inspired—but also frustrated—by the 2009 Federal Reinvestment Act.

    "11,000 miles of fiber were strung up and down Maine but not in Sanford--10 miles to our east, 10 miles to our south,” Nimon said.

    So officials just went for it—tinkering with plans and models since 2013. Both in Millinocket and Sanford, each project was leveraged forward with grants for planning and research, but each municipality had to go out on their own to form collaboratives to fund and execute their broadband projects.

    "Is it possible to extend Sanford Net--that model--to the entire community?” asked Nimon.

    Sanford has to wait to see if demand is sustained over the next few years to keep extending its fiber network outward. But without the availability of public assets, it wouldn’t be possible.

    "If you look up and down the community and you see all these utility poles--they're already permitted; there's a space for municipalities on those poles--already reserved.”

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