A war of words broke out this spring between two business partners, the Internet provider RedZone Wireless and the town of Mount Desert. 

Last year, the town signed an agreement to pay $75,000 to RedZone Wireless in exchange for increased wireless coverage and a small percentage of the subsequent profits from new subscribers. But Mount Desert selectmen misinterpreted the contract to mean that RedZone would provide coverage to 90 percent of the town within 60 days, and they felt RedZone wasn’t moving fast enough. RedZone president Jim McKenna called such an expectation absurd, especially given the lack of Internet infrastructure.

In a subsequent meeting, the selectmen backed off and offered a formal apology. The dispute appears settled, and selectmen even endorsed a citizens committee to drum up business for the company. Selectman Rick Mooers reports the town is now enjoying 70 percent wireless coverage from RedZone, with more coverage to follow.

Mooers interpreted the select board’s blunder as a symptom of the town being long overdue for wireless coverage. 

“We were eager, anxious, hungry,” Mooers said. 

The incident also illustrates what steps a town will go to bring wireless to its population, including becoming investors. Such moves are necessary, Mooers said, because bigger wireless providers have passed over Mount Desert. 

“We were in those rare pockets of the state…not able to access anything,” Mooers said.

But apparently, those pockets aren’t so rare, especially Downeast. The ConnectMaine Authority was created by the state government to bring high-speed Internet to underserved areas by providing grants for Internet infrastructure growth. Through its grant program, ConnectMaine has helped fund Internet projects for fifty underserved Maine communities. But that still leaves a little more than 11 percent of the population without high-speed Internet capabilities, and ConnectMaine has more grant applications than grant funding available.

The problem is that small and spread-out communities are up against economies of scale, said ConnectMaine executive director Phil Lindley.  Installing phone-line broadband access can cost between $10,000 and $20,000 a mile, an investment no company can hope to recoup when there are only a few broadband customers per mile. 

“That’s the reason you don’t see Time-Warner or Verizon out there,” Lindley said.

Some help may be on the way now that Verizon has sold its telephone landlines to Fairpoint Communications. The Maine Public Utilities Commission agreed to the sale on the condition that Fairpoint Communications must invest more than $16 million to expand its broadband coverage to make high-speed Internet service available to 83 percent of all line customers within two years, and 90 percent over five years.

But such an expansion probably still will leave areas of rural Maine without broadband coverage over landlines. Internet customers in sparsely populated areas could order wireless coverage for high-speed Internet instead, but larger wireless providers like Verizon seem reluctant to invest in such areas.

So instead, coastal Mainers are getting creative to find a high-speed solution.  Sometimes, it’s just a matter of serendipity and detective work. School Union #98 technologies manager Norm Hill hopes to hook all his union’s students and teachers on MDI and the outlying islands up to home high-speed Internet access for free by piggybacking on the massive Internet signal at the Jackson Laboratory on MDI. Hill discovered broadband fibers for his system lay very close to the lab’s fibers and he gained permission to connect. He plans to apply for grants from ConnectMaine to provide wireless to the homes, a move he said will provide a level playing field for all students. 

“Now I’ve got enough juice to supply every kid on the island,” he said. “The stars have aligned and the planets have all come into alignment.”

But not every tech manager is so lucky. Machias-based Axiom Technologies owner Susan Corbett estimates that the broadband available in all of Washington County is one-tenth of what’s available at the Jackson Laboratory.

Corbett found high-speed Internet options were limited and expensive when she moved her Massachusetts-based medical billing business to Washington County. She had to pay $750 a month to Verizon for a connection that was slower than her parents’ $50 per month connection out-of-state. When she asked Verizon why she couldn’t get a cheaper wireless option, a Verizon employee gave a frank and inspiring response.

“He said, ‘You can, it’s just that Verizon’s not going to help you,” she said.

So with the help of her partner, Corbett started her own Internet provider business. Since then, Axiom has created 37 wireless access points to 18 towns in Washington County. Axiom uses a combination of a string of towers and a wide range of radio frequencies to connect Washington County homes in a geographically difficult area. 

She said she’s helped transform local businesses, making them more profitable on the first day they went wireless. Her experience is not unique.  A recent report from the Brookings Institution found that when a state increases broadband access by 1 percent, it experiences a 0.2 to 0.3 percent increase in employment. 

But such opportunities are expensive, and Internet providers often must invest more than they get back from small communities – hence the need for a grant system. Axiom received an $80,000 grant from ConnectMaine to maintain its wireless system, but the company currently can’t afford to expand coverage without more state support, which leaves many Washington County residents without an affordable high-speed connection.  Corbett said there simply isn’t enough grant money available to meet the county’s needs. 

“Everyone says how good it is,” Corbett said. “But it’s getting someone to pony up.”