For islanders, the World Wide Web comes in three flavors: wireless, satellite and through the phone line. Many island communities enjoy the luxury and time saving convenience of broadband, or high speed, Internet access.
While accustomed to their isolation and privacy, islanders also say they want to be able to jump onto the “information highway” for everything from commerce to research. It has become a tool everyone depends on. But with Internet technology islands are not created equal, and for some the “tool” is clunky dial-up. Those customers watch in frustration as other islands gain super fast connections to the Web.

As our culture’s dependence on the web grows ever stronger, having a high speed Internet connection may have an even greater impact on island communities, where one business’s choice to locate there – or not – matters more. Work-at-home entrepreneurs and businesses weigh Internet access heavily.

Satellite Internet, while technically available to anyone, is not as fast as wireless, yet more expensive. Verizon, the phone company, offers DSL as a high-speed option, but not everywhere. Vinalhaven, for example, gets Verizon’s high speed DSL Internet service, but North Haven doesn’t. By quirk of FCC rules, carriers are required to share their lines in communities where they have a central office. So in bigger towns such as Camden, small Internet companies can compete with their products using the same transmission lines. Typically in smaller towns or rural locations, there will be no office but a “slick” – a little concrete pillbox with a switch for DSL. In those cases “they don’t have to open it to competition,” says Bill Batty of Midcoast Internet Solutions. “In small rural areas you can only compete with wireless.” In rural and island communities in the midcoast, Midcoast Internet Solutions offers wireless service. The company has microwave antennae scattered across strategic locations throughout the midcoast, including on Benner Hill in Rockland, Perry’s Nut House in Belfast, Owls Head and Westport Island. “Wireless isn’t affected by rain or wind, unless it actually moves your antenna,” says Batty. “The Westport-Benner Hill connection is 32 miles, and there have been no problems connecting.”

Midcoast’s microwave antenna on North Haven will benefit people within line-of-sight on Vinalhaven and Islesboro. Batty says Islesboro’s long, indented shoreline poses opportunities and challenges for island residents, depending on the view: to the north is Midcoast’s Belfast link, to the south, North Haven’s; to the west, some customers may be able to access the Benner Hill link in Rockland.

Midcoast also services Matinicus and Metinic Islands with wireless high speed Internet access. Matinicus has no local dialing area; for people making a cross-island call, it was either long distance or nothing. “So we put modems out there and people would dial into an exchange over wireless to Rockland. The backbone is wireless,” says Batty. Midcoast Internet Solutions put a tower on Metinic, and the company uses that link to service the more remote parts of the midcoast mainland, such as Tenants Harbor.

“It’s changing fast,” says Batty. “It’s interesting how many people move up here to get away from the big city and they want broadband.”
Just ask Page Clason of Islesboro as he attempts work computing from Islesboro. Clason has been working to upgrade the town’s computer system. “I’d moved away for years and got used to working with high speed Internet. I come back here and find myself fighting the same battles as 10 years ago. In the digital world that cripples things in a hurry,” says Clason.

All schools and libraries across Maine offer the best option for high speed Internet access in places where dial up is the only alternative. The library on Islesford in Cranberry Isles recently celebrated the installation of a T1 line, bringing the only broadband connection to the island. A T1 is essentially a dedicated copper phone line. What differentiates it is that a typical phone line has signal boosters and shares space with other phones, whereas the library’s T1 “leaves the building and comes up in Mt. Desert somewhere, and goes to Verizon,” says Islesford resident Bill McGuinness, who helped get the service to the library.

According to McGuinness, customers installing a T1 normally pay for all the wiring and a monthly $2,000 charge. In Islesford’s case, Verizon ran the lines at its own expense (the state required it) to every school and library across the state. “The company provides service through the Maine Schools and Library Network. The client is the University of Maine, which pays a reduced rate and gets state and federal funding,” says McGuinness. “Our cost was the router that receives the signal.”

McGuinness says the introduction of high speed Internet service to Islesford has “lowered the barrier” and will have a profound impact for the community. “It’s an important first step that makes a big difference to someone who wants to work at home. That can be important on Cranberry, where one family makes a difference on the entire island.”

To Nancy Jordan, librarian on Casco Bay’s Long Island, high speed Internet service represents far more than convenience of having a Web page instantly download. Long Island’s library also received a T1 line, but islanders await residential high speed DSL Internet access that Verizon has promised by December this year.

“I can’t wait,” says Jordan. “I hope it will make Long Island more accessible to people with more means as year-rounders. We have one family that lives in Massachusetts, and he’s a ‘computer person’. They said they’d move here right away as soon as we get high speed Internet.”

All agree that high speed Internet access is important for economic development, particularly on islands. For the moment the picture is spotty, however, and island communities stuck in the technology void will are making do with dial-up. As Page Clason says on Islesboro, “over time you learn to multi-task” waiting for files to download.