Joan Herrick, of Northport, has waited as long a half hour for a website to load on her computer while researching patterns for her home-based quilt-making business.
Food historian Sandy Oliver often has time to wash the dishes in her Islesboro home while downloading a document from the Library of Congress.
Jennifer Bichrest, owner of Purse Line Bait in Phippsburg, thought all she needed was dial-up Internet service until two years ago, when her local cable television provider brought broadband service to her part of town. Now she uses it for everything from payroll services to checking on the stocks of bait she has at a storage facility in Portland.
Despite estimates that as much as 90 percent of Maine’s households have access to high-speed Internet service, there are still pockets along the coast and the islands where broadband service is more a wish than a reality.
The state’s ConnectME Authority has handed out two rounds of grants in recent years to expand high-speed Internet service to under-served parts of Maine, including Mount Desert Island, the Cranberries, and coastal Washington County. The new federal stimulus package also contains funds for expanding broadband service in rural areas.
For many coastal residents, the upgrades can’t come soon enough. An increasing number of Mainers now operate businesses out of their homes that depend on high-speed Internet access to allow them to communicate with suppliers and clients.
Others telecommute to jobs all over the country and even the world through the Internet. And even the smallest waterfront business these days needs Internet access to order goods and handle customers.
“Everyone I deal with in this business assumes everyone else already has high-speed service,” explains Bart Chapin, who designs machine tools and parts from his home on a dirt road in Arrowsic.
He does almost all of his business over the Internet, and the frustration factor can be considerable. “I have dial-up and satellite services, and they’re both miserable,” he says. “There are days when I’d love to take the satellite dish and throw it into the Kennebec. The dial-up connection is just reliably bad.”
Meanwhile, the need for high-speed Web access keeps growing. Chapin can point to at least six households on his little dirt road whose residents are working from home over the Internet, including a computer programmer and an engineer designing wind power installations for the Galapagos Islands.
Joan Herricks’ husband, Charlie, is the IT coordinator for a major social service agency and designs Websites as a sideline. “You can go to every other house in Northport and knock on the door and find someone working from home over the Internet,” he says. “One of my clients travels all over the world giving seminars on financial auditing, and she was stunned when she discovered she couldn’t get broadband here.”
Oliver keeps a second office in a building “down island” strictly because it has a satellite Internet connection. “It’s a pain in the ass,” she says bluntly. A local Web provider, Midcoast Internet Solutions, has installed a tower on the island to provide wireless Internet service, but Oliver says reception at her home is spotty.
Charlie Herrick says many residents on the west side of Penobscot Bay can use the service, “but only if they can see Islesboro,” he adds. “Wireless Internet is strictly line of sight, and if you’re behind the Camden Hills or another mountain, you’re out of luck.”
Most of the expanded coverage that the ConnectME Authority helps finance is wireless Internet service, says Phil Lindley, the authority’s executive director. “It’s not inexpensive,” he explains. “A single tower can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, then there’s the equipment you have to hang from it. But even that is less expensive than stringing copper everywhere.”
The Maine Legislature created the ConnectME Authority in 2006, funded with a 0.25 percent surcharge on instate retail communications services. Since 2007 it has awarded 13 grants totaling more than $2.5 million, expanding access to 26,900 Maine residents.
Lindley estimates that 90 percent of Mainers have access to broadband service, but he emphasizes that the number is only an estimate. The authority is currently advertising a contract for a company to perform a survey of broadband coverage in Maine. “One of our challenges is getting good information that would allow me to zero in on places where broadband is and isn’t,” he says.
Connectivity can vary even within towns. Bichrest points out that Cundys Harbor village has cable service, “but a lot of the side roads don’t because there aren’t enough people on them to make it worth the company’s time.” Harpswell Neck also lacks high-speed service, according to Lindley.
Lindley knows there are places along the coast and out on the islands that need improved service. “Monhegan has DSL service through the phone company there,” he notes. “Matinicus has a microwave link with a tower on Owls Head.” The Cranberries and Chebeague Island have been the targets of recent grants from the authority. Other island communities? “That’s one reason we’re doing the survey – to find out,” he says.
Even if Lindley reaches his goal of 100 percent access to broadband service, Charlie Herrick adds, the technology keeps moving the goal posts. “The high speed that we have in Maine is pitiful compared to the rest of the United States,” he points out. “The hallmark nationally now is eight megabits a second, and in Maine you’re lucky to get one or two megabits.”
But any improvement is better than none. “The lack of a reliable high-speed connection does dampen business activity out here,” says Oliver. “People are putting up with it because they think it’s going to get better down the road.” Oliver is of the opinion that better Internet access could be key to future island viability. “If we had better high-speed Internet here on the islands, it would certainly promote more small businesses,” she notes. “And that would be good for everyone.”
-Jeff Clark is a writer living in Bath Maine.