When asked for his assessment of high-speed Internet capability in the Cranberry islands, resident Hugh Smallwood replied with a statement that would be questionable to print in this newspaper.

Afterwards, he said at best he can get 50 KB, better than dialup, but not fast enough for his needs.

“It’s way below DSL speed,” he said.

Smallwood is one of a growing number of Cranberry residents who rely on the Internet for their livelihood. He develops and maintains disaster-recovery plans for organizations and helps clients prepare and store backup documentation.

“A very key part of it is having access to the Internet,” Smallwood said.

Smallwood and other Cranberry residents are growing frustrated with how close the broadband Internet revolution has come to their homes without entering. Through state initiatives and grants, island schools and libraries have T-1 lines capable of high-speed and wireless Internet. So far, however, residents have been unable to convince their phone company, Verizon, to expand the high-speed reach to encompass all Cranberry homes.

Smallwood said that island-wide high-speed net access would be a boon to the islands’ economy and day-to-day life.

“It would dramatically change the lifestyle,” he said.

For one, it would help part-time residents stay longer, he said. He personally knew of a Cranberry resident who taught online courses, but had to regularly return to Baltimore solely because of the inferior Internet access. Smallwood lives on Cranberry for half the year, but said he too would probably stay longer if Internet service were faster.

While there are good fiber-optic phone-lines in place between the mainland and Great Cranberry, the connection between Great and Little Cranberry is older and offers less chance of future high-speed improvement without a large investment. Cyrus Moulton, an Island Institute Fellow in Cranberry Isles, said he doesn’t see Verizon making such an investment anytime soon.

“Verizon says basically, `It’s not economically feasible, it’s not worth our time,” said Moulton.

Peter Reilly, Maine director of public affairs for Verizon, said he understands why smaller communities might be growing impatient with the wait for high-speed internet, but that Verizon is going as fast as it can to expand broadband’s reach.

“Deploying new technology…takes some time and capital investment,” Reilly said.

He pointed out that in four years, 29 competing companies have increased the number of broadband Internet lines in Maine from 38,000 to 214,000.

But island residents fear Verizon may not be interested in investing further into a small market such as theirs.

Some analysts wonder if Verizon may be interested in expanding its New England infrastructure at all, after Verizon representatives publicly acknowledged in August that the company was attempting to sell off its Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont holdings.

This announcement was accompanied by news that Verizon was pulling out of a proposed cable deal in New Hampshire, prompting one New Hampshire official to comment that the information superhighway in his state was in danger of becoming a dirt road.

Moulton said that many Cranberry residents feel they can no longer wait for Verizon.

Some, like Dan Lief, one of Isleford’s selectmen and owner of the Isleford Dock restaurant, have turned to satellite Internet. Lief said satellite might be better than landlines, but not by much. The service is both expensive and unreliable.

“It’s weather-sensitive,” Lief said. “It’s good when it works.”

Moulton said that in island-wide meetings to write the islands’ comprehensive plan, discussions always revolve around the Internet. He said residents feel broadband access can be used both to retain young people on the islands and attract more year-round residents.

“We feel we have a limited opportunity [to attract new people],” Moulton said. “We want to be a community that’s leading the way.”

John Whitehill, co-director of the Center for Appalachian Network Accessibility, couldn’t agree more. His Pennsylvania-based non-profit organization has been helping mountain communities hook onto high-speed Internet for years and he’s seen the results when broadband comes to town.

“It’s saved colleges, it’s saved towns,” he said.

Whitehall said broadband access is now what separates prospering communities from isolated ones, and if a town wants to use high-speed Internet to attract new residents, it had better hurry.

“It’s no longer at the forefront,” Whitehall said. “The questioning period should be over.”

Luckily, Whitehall said, if a community is committed to getting high-speed Internet access, it can usually do so without too much difficulty.

“The technology is not the problem, the community will is the problem,” he said.

Moulton said Cranberry residents are close to forming a committee on how to bring high-speed Internet onto the islands independently. He just hopes the quest for high-speed net won’t get lost in the overwhelming business of writing the islands’ comprehensive plan.

For island residents looking for resources on bringing high-speed Internet to their communities, contact Sam Elowitch at the Maine-based non-profit Rural Broadband Initiative, at 207-778-6136.
You can also email info@ruralbroadbandinitiative.org — if your Internet connection is working.