Broadband expansion painfully slow for many Mainers despite upgrades

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WINTERPORT, Maine — Michele Richards of Pineview Drive has a problem that will resonate with other Mainers who live even slightly off the beaten path: The internet at her house is so slow it’s affecting her ability to do her job.

Richards, who works remotely for Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor in human resources, has to be on the computer all the time. She and her husband Jeff pay $70 a month to Consolidated Communications, the only internet provider to serve their route. In return, they’re supposed to get peak download speeds of 10 megabits per second, but the internet that comes to them over DSL is usually slower than that.

Many Mainers have Internet connectivity issues, mostly because of the old copper-wire telephone network in place, especially in rural areas, according to Erik Garr, president of consumer and small business for Consolidated Communications. The company plans to add 150,000 homes this year to its fiber internet network and expand it by 450,000 homes over the next four years through a project partially funded by state and federal governments. For people like the Richards, whose Internet goes through slow copper DSL, fiber would be a game-changer.

Michele and Jeff Richards talk about the struggles they have with slow internet speeds at their home, mostly for Michele’s work. New infrastructure doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon for the Richards, despite government funding for broadband expansion in rural Maine. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“This copper telephone network is a bit like an old car. It has passed its useful life and is difficult to repair. That’s why we spend so much capital [as we are]”, said Garr.

Zoom calls and any other type of video conferencing are a problem for Richards. Downloading large employee data files can overload their system and cause problematic lags. And every time she hears about the millions of dollars in funding the federal and state governments are pouring into expanding broadband in rural Maine — $500 million at last count — it makes her wonder what it will take to bring expansion home.

“My supervisor actually mentioned that I might need to move if my internet service doesn’t improve,” she wrote recently in a letter sent to Consolidated Communications, Governor Janet Mills and the ConnectMaine Authority, a government agency dedicated to bringing broadband to everyone. Maine households and businesses.

Her supervisor was only half-serious, she said on Friday – but he was making a point.

“My boss said, ‘The state gets all this money. Why can’t you get a decent internet connection? “, she said.

For them, it is a reasonable question. The couple live on a private dirt road, but are only half a mile from the tarmac road and about 1 mile from a high-speed cable hub. There are about 20 houses on this road, and all the families living there would probably like to have faster internet for school, work and play, she said.

Because of her job, Richards has to work securely over a virtual private network, or VPN. Her supervisor told her that satellite internet, like Starlink, was not a good option for her. Cellular broadband, such as Redzone Wireless, will also not work due to the location of their home. So they are stuck with slow DSL speeds.

It stung a bit when one of his colleagues at Jackson Laboratory, who also lives in Winterport and works remotely, recently received an email saying that his own internet service provider would increase his speed by 100 to 200 megabits per second – at least 10 times faster than what Richards has — at no extra cost.

With around 15% of Mainers lacking even basic internet service, according to the ConnectMaine Authority, it seems unfair and illogical to the Richards that people who already have fast internet should be upgraded.

“It makes no sense,” Michele Richards said. “Everyone is always talking about expanding broadband, but all they’re doing is increasing the speed of everyone who already has it.”

That perception isn’t exactly the truth, according to Garr of Consolidated, one of Maine’s largest internet service providers. The company is expanding its fiber-optic internet infrastructure in Maine as quickly as possible, he said. Funding comes from state and federal governments, its own network upgrade investments, and direct relationships with Maine cities.

The FCC’s current base standard for broadband is 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads. Consolidated’s new fiber network will have download and upload speeds of 1 gigabit per second. A gigabit connection can deliver information 1,000 times faster than a megabit.

“Maine is generally one of the least fibrous states in the country. There are fewer people in Maine with access to fiber than anywhere else,” Garr said. “I think it’s kind of the start of a new day for Maine.”

But that day isn’t coming anytime soon for the Richards. According to Garr, their neighborhood is not part of the company’s 2022 construction plan. Because Consolidated Communications makes its plans every year, it’s too early to tell if Pineview Drive will be in next year’s plan.

Jeff Richards talks about the slow internet connection at his home in Winterport. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“These projects represent thousands of miles of construction and hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “We’re building a lot of things in Maine over the next few years. It’s like all things in life. Everyone wishes that we all had this infrastructure today. But building a system of this size and scale is a five-year project.

The Richards wonder why the state is focusing on fiber optic infrastructure, which is very expensive compared to high-speed cable Internet infrastructure. Maine could bring better internet to more people with wired rather than fiber-optic networks, they said. At home, they don’t need one gigabit per second upload and download speeds, but they do need something faster than four to nine megabits per second.

“The goal is to get everyone in Maine online. We don’t need to make Maine New York City,” Michele Richards said. “Not all of us need fiber optics. Just give people what they need.

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