Maine’s broadband infrastructure is becoming more outdated each day, and only a group effort involving consumers, service providers and government can solve the problem, according to GWI founder and CEO Fletcher Kittredge.

Kittredge has created a 10-point plan to improve broadband access in Maine that includes steps such as setting a higher statewide target for average Internet speeds and favoring public investment in fiber-optic infrastructure over legacy networks such as copper cable.

He said the plan was prompted in part by a recent report based on Ookla NetMetrics data that said Maine ranks 49th out of the 50 states for quality and availability of broadband access. Ookla is a Montana-based firm that tests the performance of Internet networks.

In another report issued Monday by Cambridge, Mass.-based cloud services provider Akamai Technologies, Maine tied with Arizona for 37th place. The Akamai study found that Maine’s average broadband Internet speed was 8.7 megabits per second in the first quarter of 2014, compared with the U.S. average of 10.5 mbps.

Massachusetts ranked third, with an average speed of 13.1 mbps; Rhode Island was fourth, with 12.9 mbps; New Hampshire was seventh, with 12.3 mbps; Connecticut was 10th, with 11.7 mbps; and Vermont was 24th, with 10.2 mbps

According to Phil Lindley, of the ConnectME Authority, about 85 percent of Maine households have access to Internet download speeds of at least 3 mbps. According to the United States Telecom Association, 95 percent of all U.S. households have access to at least one wired broadband provider.

Kittredge said Maine’s low rankings deter many companies from choosing it as a place to do business. That makes poor-quality broadband access an economic development issue that affects everyone, he said.

The ironic aspect of Maine’s plummet to the bottom of such lists is that in the late 1990s, Portland was one of just two cities in the United States with access to high-speed Internet service, Kittredge said.

“We used to be really highly rated,” he said.

Since then, service providers in Portland and the rest of the state, with a few notable exceptions, have not kept pace with ongoing network improvements in other regions, he said. The exceptions include Lewiston-based Oxford Networks, which has built a fiber network serving much of southern Maine with the help of state funding. Another such network in downtown Rockport was funded by the municipality and is operated by Kittredge’s company, Biddeford-based GWI.

Kittredge said there should be many more projects in Maine to deliver fiber-optic speeds directly to customers, but several obstacles stand in the way.

Large Internet service providers in the state tend to lack the motivation or funds to tear out their existing networks and install fiber, he said. They have had some success at squeezing more bandwidth out of the existing infrastructure, but there is a limit to the speed increases that can be achieved.

Companies such as FairPoint Communications are constrained by laws requiring them to put residential telephone customers first, Kittredge said. As more and more consumers ditch their landlines for cellphones, those laws should be revisited, he said.

Another big issue is affordability, Kittredge said. High-speed fiber to the home or business is not truly accessible unless it is affordable, he said.

Because of its size and sparse population, it would be nearly impossible to provide affordable broadband service across Maine without additional government subsidies, Kittredge said.

“There are lots and lots of places in Maine where you’ll never make money offering broadband,” he said.

Therefore, the state’s congressional delegation needs to maximize federal support to improve the state’s infrastructure, Kittredge said.

In 2009, the federal government awarded a $26 million grant to build the Three Ring Binder, a 1,100-mile, high-speed fiber network in predominantly rural Maine. Still, Kittredge said, the network lacks a sufficient number of access points to provide affordable service to all areas.

If Maine could garner a larger share of the $8 billion in federal funds available to improve U.S. broadband networks, he said, some of that money could be used to help local Internet service providers make those last-mile connections.

Drumming up more public support for a better Internet infrastructure in Maine is another key to Kittredge’s 10-point plan. He said significant improvements are unlikely if Mainers don’t see the value in them.

“If public opinion was already there, I think this problem would be solved,” he said.

Smaller Internet service providers are helping to bring rural Maine’s broadband Internet infrastructure into the modern age, ConnectME’s Lindley said, but it has been a slow process.

ConnectME, a state agency that issues grants to companies looking to build broadband networks in unserved rural areas, has helped grant recipients connect about 40,000 households with high-speed Internet over the past eight years, he said.

The agency recently approved 10 new grants, including six for projects to build small fiber-optic networks ranging from 20 to 285 households each.

“It seems like a drop in the bucket, but every drop helps,” he said.

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