Feasibility Study

A feasibility study provides information on existing infrastructure & needs.

Broadband is an effective way to address some of the challenges associated with island life. High-speed internet can provide economic, educational, medical, and other benefits without the need for physical connectedness. In order to best determine baseline connectivity and community goals around broadband, it is important to do a thorough study before settling on any infrastructure improvement project or public-private partnerships. Many Maine communities are commissioning studies to learn what internet access and speeds currently exist in their town and how they might invest in infrastructure. The island town of Islesboro started this process as “residents felt the lack of competitive broadband was an anchor on the economic vitality of the island and its summer community.”

How it Works

In 2012, private donations and municipal funds were used to conduct a feasibility study. Based on the results of the study, residents voted to approve spending for an infrastructure design and financial model for building a new network with gigabit speeds. The final phase began in June 2016, when residents voted to move forward with construction of the first universal, municipal-wide, gigabit internet system in Maine. Listen to a podcast about incredible committed shown by their broadband committee.

Feasibility studies are not cheap, and it is often hard to garner significant financial support to fund this essential step. Given the ability of a feasibility study to define a strategy forward on broadband improvement, the Island Institute helped other islands take this first step by funding a multi-island study.

Key factors

  • Seek private donations. Try to supplement possible public funding. Raising private funds lessens possible tax burdens, can delay the need to solicit public funds, and allow time for community members to do as much educational outreach as possible. It also is a great opportunity for some community members able to offer their assistance to get the project started more quickly and cost-effectively.
     
  • Engage community leaders. Involve community members with diverse backgrounds from information technology, public or private finance, and public service. Convene a small group of broadband champions willing and able to give their valuable time, in order to enhance the project and educate others. Ensure key political leaders are also engaged and knowledgeable. This will support outreach efforts and ensure broader community support when public funding is necessary to move forward with an internet improvement project.
     
  • Communicate often. In addition to posting notices for broadband committee meetings, prominently post the meeting minutes. Make public announcements about progress made; using social media or community newsletters is a great way for the word to spread. For more ideas, see the Solutions tab: Engage the Community.

Q&A with Island Institute Economic Development Director Briana Warner

Q: What is the importance of a broadband feasibility study?

A: A feasibility study clearly identifies a community’s needs around high-speed internet—whether it’s businesses,  educational or telehealth opportunities, government services, or attracting and retaining young families. These community objectives create a framework within which the community broadband working groups can pursue better internet service for their community. On a technical level, feasibility studies identify existing infrastructure, so communities know what they have to work with.

Q: Feasibility studies can be costly, tens of thousands of dollars; how did you work to make it affordable?

A: It’s important to seek economies of scale—once you incur expenses to do something once, it doesn’t cost as much to do something multiple times, up to a point. Furthermore, we know that island communities, while all unique and different, share a lot of similarities and might be able to work together to find a solution. We found that some aspects of the study could be conducted for all islands for the same cost as conducting those aspects for just one or a few islands. The cost of a study can be reduced if multiple communities commission a regional study, which can still provide information at the individual community level. Other towns have found that regional approaches save money, including in a recent project by Rockland, Rockport, and Owl’s Head.

Q: Broadband isn’t a familiar topic; how did you and Tilson staff engage communities?

A: Lack of broadband continued to be an issue that came up in discussions, both about economic development and community sustainability. I heard over and over that broadband could act as a virtual bridge to the mainland and could provide diversified career opportunities for people. We worked with community leaders and business people to help identify key members of the community interested in changing their broadband situation. A key part of a thorough feasibility study includes holding community meetings to identify community goals and assess technology limitations, which also create buy-in beyond the small broadband committees. Having reliable and strong community leaders guide the process helps to ensure that these meetings are well-attended, and that residents understand the purpose and limitations of a feasibility study.

Q: What other recommendations do you have for communities interested in considering a feasibility study?

A: In addition to individual community leaders, make sure to involve the places that do or could provide public internet access. Feasibility studies usually include speed tests at identified locations that relate to the community’s goals or vision, such as libraries, schools, and other municipal, nonprofit, medical, or business locations. These “anchor institutions” are very likely to connect to improved internet service, so they are important to consider when internet infrastructure improvement projects are being pursued. Managers and board members of anchor institutions can also be very helpful in communicating and educating about the project.  Also, remember that the feasibility study is only the first step. Getting better internet to a small rural community will take a tremendous amount of effort and time from community leaders. The feasibility study can be a first test as to whether you have the community leadership necessary to be successful with an infrastructure improvement project.

Challenges

  • Community awareness. Don’t expect overwhelming community interest, let alone support, at first. Internet usage has long been a private matter: People easily notice if the roads are bad, but might not have experience to compare their internet service to other areas; roads are publicly funded, but internet infrastructure is not. It will take time to raise community awareness of the topic and properly identify community goals around preparing the town for the future.
     
  • Quality of data or knowledge. The results or conclusions of a feasibility study are only as good as the data going into it. The company conducting the feasibility study reaches out to existing internet service providers to find out what service and prices are available currently, what infrastructure improvements are planned or possible in the future, and how likely they are to partner with the community toward implementing a solution. It is helpful if community leaders reach out to internet service providers before/during the study as well, to help ensure that the provider shares as much information as possible. It’s also important that community members actively participate in the study in order to best define community needs for broadband.
     
  • Priority level. Improving internet service doesn’t always rise to the top of community priorities that need to be immediately addressed, especially in communities with many public service concerns like funding education, ensuring transportation, or addressing medical needs. However, falling behind the digital divide could put your community at a huge disadvantage in the new economy and in addressing those other priorities. After it becomes clearer through education that broadband is a necessary tool for the community to remain viable into the future, it may slowly rise up the priority list. Build on and celebrate the small successes along the way, with the knowledge that these projects take time.

Results

Work with an incumbent provider

Rural communities in Maine often have very small populations and sometimes have a hard time getting attention from incumbent service providers. The communities of Frenchboro, Matinicus, Isle Au Haut, and Swan's Island came together as a group with the Island Institute to coordinate shared goals and meet with their incumbent service provider, TDS Telecom. With power in numbers, the islands were able to better understand TDS's planned upgrades and make a case for the upgrades meeting community goals around broadband.

IMPLEMENTATION STEPS

  • Community members participated in the 2015 Maine Island Broadband Conference (See the Broadband Resource Page).
     
  • With help from the Island Institute, community members set up a series of conference calls to strategize on how to best approach TDS prior to the company's planned upgrades on the islands. They wanted to use the meeting to reinforce their goals around having upgrades meet the federal standard for broadband (25mbps/3mbps) and discuss possibilities of creating a public-private partnership to fill any service gaps after the upgrades were completed.
     
  • In January 2016, the islanders met with TDS officials as a group and detailed their communities' goals. TDS officials agreed to work with the communities to meet those goals and said that their upgrades would aim to bring speeds commiserate with the federal standard to the islands. They also agreed to meet with the communities after the upgrades were made to address any service gaps and discuss a possible public-private partnership to address additional service deadspots.
     
  • Following that meeting and a few times during the deployment of upgrades, community members with the Island Institute continued to communicate with TDS officials.

KEY FACTORS

  • If your community is very small, consider working with other communities who are similarly serviced by an incumbent provider. An organization like the Island Institute that can facilitate these connections and act as a common voice can be helpful in ensuring that economies of scale are realized.
     
  • Strategize before any meeting with an incumbent service provider to make sure that all partners share a common goal and speak with a unified voice. If you don't know what you want from the service provider, it will be hard for them to respond.
     
  • Come to any meeting with an incumbent service provider with an objective in mind, but be flexible to working within the service provider's corporate capabilities.
     
  • Propose ways that you might be able work together to ensure that internet service meets your community goals into the future--a one-off negotiation only answers current broadband goals. A long-term relationship means that, as community goals change, the discussion with the service provider can continue to address new objectives.

CHALLENGES

  • Incumbent service providers have to ensure that infrastructure investments are economically viable and may request public investment in order to move forward with any improvements.
     
  • Discussions with an incumbent service provider might reveal that they are not interested in a serious public-private partnership, so the community may need to look deeper into working with other internet service providers.
     
  • Connecting with other communities and coordinating goals and strategies can require a lot of time and energy leading up to meetings with internet service providers, but a unified voice of several communities is almost always more powerful than separate communities advocating for their own goals alone.

RESULTS

  • The on-island portion of planned TDS upgrades were completed in September 2016.
     
  • Some of the communities now have access to 25mbps/3mbps speeds while others are working to identify where gaps in service exist. Swan's Island decided to use a community survey to identify the efficacy of the upgrades. (See the Engage the Community tab.)

Request for Information Process

An RFI or RFP process can provide more options for improving connectivity.

Once you have a handle on (most of) your community's broadband goals and existing infrastructure, using a Request-For-Information (RFI) process is a great way to solicit creative solutions to leveraging that existing infrastructure and improving internet connectivity. If you've determined the details of the broadband project you want to undertake and are seeking bids for construction of new infrastructure, then you may choose to use a Request For Proposals (RFP). An RFP implies there will be a contract on a broadband project through the bid process, and is often, but not always, written to be binding. As such, RFPs ask for more financial information than an RFIs. If your community is seeking to garner creative solutions, which might be used to help you choose a company for an eventual engineered infrastructure design, then (at least starting with) an RFI may work better. RFI's are also better if you want to keep the option open of going straight into negotiations with a company rather than doing a bid process for choosing a company.

IMPLEMENTATION STEPS

Design the RFI (or RFP)

  • Thoughtfully outline the way the questions are asked or information is requested in the RFI so as to allow you to compare apples to apples when reviewing the responses. Specifically state that responses must address the sections in order and that all supporting materials are provided in appropriate sections.
     
  • Be clear about what information or responses are required, versus any questions that are optional or where there is room for creativity in responses.

Content to include

  • Be specific about the community. Highlight its goals, miles of road, number of premises, and existing infrastructure; limitations of doing a project, both physical (e.g., ferry) and political (e.g., tower ordinances); ownership and number of utility poles; and any assets or information you can provide potential respondents.
     
  • For RFIs, avoid specificity in the project. Avoid narrowly defining internet speed, limiting technology options, or setting subscription prices. Explain (strongly imply) the minimum speed or other deliverables that are required in order to meet the community goals, which are explicitly stated. Be open to all technology responses that can meet those goals. Encourage respondents to propose financial models that allow for low/affordable/comparable subscription prices.
     
  • For RFIs, imply or explain—and for RFPs, clearly state—how much the community is contributing. Don’t commit to anything, but address investigation of funding sources, willingness to do outreach to affect subscription rates, potential for partnership to reduce subscription prices, etc. Be clear about the community’s expectations in a partnership, e.g., ownership model, and whether or not there’s openness to variations on that ownership model.

Posting and reviewing

  • Publicly post the RFI or RFP is often, if not always, required for grant funding, by local laws, or just good ethics. In addition to using the town's website, consider emailing potential respondents you know exist in the area. Consider sharing the town's website link or attached RFI/RFP in emails to broader stakeholders who can also spread the word. This can help increase the potential number of respondents.
     
  • Ensure transparency of the process, again especially for grant seeking. Consider using the town website to post updates and document the process to show that it is equitable, etc.
     
  • Additional insurances should be in place for an RFP or bid process, e.g., opening bids at a public meeting all at once. Check with your local government to ensure compliance with local charters, laws, and policies.

CHALLENGES

  • Legalese. Both RFIs and RFPs should be reviewed by the town’s legal adviser, but this usually isn’t a requirement of at least RFIs. You’ll want to check with a town official who knows, or review town charter/bylaws.
     
  • Coordination. Do you want to provide the opportunity for potential respondents to ask clarifying questions (i.e., hold an optional conference call) on the RFI/RFP shortly after issuing it? It is typical to request submission of questions a couple of weeks before closing the RFI/RFP, and you would post answers at least a week before the RFI/RFP is closed. Both modes of communication with potential respondents require planned coordination by the community: Decide well in advance who will receive all questions, and decide who will be involved in developing answers, but only one individual should be delegated the task of responding to questions, to ensure consistency in responses. All responses given should be made available to all potential respondents, e.g., posted on the town's webpage for the RFI/RFP process.
     
  • Time. This process takes a lot of time and communication among many individuals. Some communities chose to appoint someone outside the broadband working group or even hire a firm to do the RFI/RFP process. While that provides the community additional resources for this process, it requires you to build in extra time for back-and-forth communication with that individual or firm. Be very clear on expectations, and the roles and responsibilities of the firm versus the town or of the individual versus the working group.

RESULTS

  • The Town of Cranberry Isles  to solicit creative options for an infrastructure network that would meet its community goals. The working group used a  the RFI responses, and entered right into negotiations for an infrastructure design and financial model for their broadband project. In 2017, the town voted to move forward with building a fiber-wireless network, a creative solution identified by the RFI process.
     
  • Long Island, Maine,  to determine interest from internet service providers in designing, constructing, and/or operating a new infrastructure network to meet the community's goals. The RFI specifically requested financial models to allow for the town to recoup the upfront costs contributed to the project. Responses to the RFI provided the broadband committee valuable information on the obstacles to such a financial model. The broadband committee has begun discussions with neighboring islands on exploring possible regional solutions that may provide efficiencies to reduce the cost of an infrastructure build-out.  

Broadband Working Groups

Broadband working groups can help distribute the work.

Like any community project, successfully improving internet connectivity takes the efforts of more than just one (exhausted) person! Forming a broadband working group, task force, or committee is a great way to pursue broadband improvements. Bringing together community members with diverse backgrounds can help with developing the community vision for its future, educating the broader community about broadband, and communicating the group's efforts moving forward. In this way, working groups can help ensure that there's community-wide support for resulting broadband projects.

HOW IT WORKS

Broadband solutions may require municipal involvement. This led the five dedicated residents who initiated a grassroots efforts on Long Island in Casco Bay to seek authorization from their local officials. While these residents intend to continue pursuit of broadband, they received municipal authorization as the Broadband Exploratory Committee to investigate broadband options and make a recommendation report to the select board. With more formality, the Town of Cranberry Isles select board authorized the Broadband Communications Working Group, which meets on set agendas to progress their broadband efforts.

Not all working groups are initiated or driven by local governments though. On Swan's Island, residents initiated their broadband committee, by pulling together a diverse group that includes business owners, librarians, school officials, technical experts, health professionals, and also municipal officials. Cliff Island is part of the City of Portland, so residents are utilizing an existing nonprofit, Sustainable Cliff Island. It was established to address the problems that threaten the sustainability of year-round residency on the island. Picking up the topic of broadband made sense in hopes of increasing employment options on the island, enabling and enriching educational opportunities, accessing government services, and facilitating the development of a telehealth facility.

Cliff and Long Islands, with Chebeague Island, joined forces to seek cost-efficiencies in a potential broadband solution, by appointing representatives from their individual working groups to a regional task force they call Down Bay Broadband. In addition to benefiting from each other's skills, resources, and credibility, they are also able to leverage one another's existing internet infrastructure for expansion of broadband to all three islands. Their aggregated voice (and potential customers!) can generate more attention from potential internet services providers.

KEY FACTORS

  • Identify individuals. Assess the levels of interest and commitments from potential working group members, and seek a variety of expertise or perspectives. In addition to be respected residents, the Long Island Committee possesses information technology expertise. The Cranberry Isles Group is made of fishermen, librarians, technical experts, public safety and municipal officials, and business owners, who have strong relationships with school officials, historians, and telecommuters.
     
  • Determine organization. Would a more or less formal meeting structure benefit the productivity of the working group or the reception of the working group's outputs such as reports, presentations, or decisions? Working under an existing, umbrella mission, Sustainable Cliff Island was able to get right to work, setting up meetings with internet service providers to seek out the best broadband solution and raise the money to make it a reality. The formality of the Cranberry Isles Group helps ensure transparency of their actions and decisions, which supports efforts to garner broad community buy-in for an eventual broadband project. 
     
  • Set an agenda. Verbalize the need and your goal. The Long Island Committee aims to support a stable year-round community, with great economic and social opportunities. The Swan's Island Broadband Committee confirmed broadband goals of providing the ability to telework and supporting businesses, ensuring telehealth services, and providing for municipal public safety. Down Bay Broadband identified where their individual communities' goals overlapped: desire to enable telecommuting, facilitate telehealth, support municipal services, and provide educational opportunities for decades to come.
     
  • Meet regularly. In addition to a meeting schedule, set up a way to communicate between meetings. The Long Island Committee decided on weekly meetings, in order to synthesize information they had collected from various internet service providers and other broadband experts, as well as to strategize ahead of future meetings with providers. While meeting on an as needed basis, the Cranberry Isles Group members continued conversations using Slack, an online messaging system.

CHALLENGES

  • Volunteers & level of priority. It can be hard to find people who are interested and have the time to commit. Broadband may not be the issue of the day, so you need to make the case for high-speed internet. What do they care about, and how is broadband related to that problem? While the lack of broadband may not be the most urgent problem, emphasize how every community member is impacted indirectly if not directly in their work, health, education, or quality of life.
     
  • Timing. Try to hold meetings when the most people can attend as possible. Consider setting up a conference call option, which can also come in handy for bringing outside experts to the table.
     
  • Staying positive. It can be challenging to maintain momentum when working group actions don't have the desired outcome. Spread the work out among group members and celebrate each success no matter how small.
     
  • Being patient. The pursuit of broadband will take months if not years. Try not to get discouraged when internet service providers aren't able to respond very timely, or when funding deadlines don't align well with local government meetings.

RESULTS

  • By maintaining continuity from one meeting to the next, despite the members' very busy lives, the Cranberry Isles Group ensures consensus is reached and well-communicated broadly, as they developed their action plan, which was overwhelmingly approved at their 2017 town meeting.
     
  • With well-articulated community goals, the Long Island Committee garnered overwhelming support at a community meeting to continue moving forward in the pursuit of broadband.
     
  • With so many, diverse members, the Swan's Island Committee was able to conduct a successful community survey while also investigating their existing infrastructure.
     
  • Click on the example "Identify Community Priorities" to learn more about Long Island's meeting strategy or Swan's Island community survey. 

Identify Community Priorities

Community surveys can help identify community priorities around broadband.

The Swan’s Island Broadband Committee needed to figure out where the internet service gaps were located so they could focus improvement efforts in the most effective way possible. They also realized the need for broader community awareness around broadband, in order for the community to eventually improve service.

HOW IT WORKS

The community survey provided background on why broadband is important and collected needed information for those taking action toward improving internet service. By taking the survey, community members can see first-hand the quality of their own internet service. The results of the survey can be shared at community meetings, on municipal websites, and/or through social media.

IMPLEMENTATION STEPS

  1. Plan the survey. Surveys can be expensive or time-consuming to conduct, so it's important to ensure that the survey has a clear purpose and will generate the necessary information. Considering who will take the survey will determine the survey mode: online, paper, in-person, by mail, etc. The optimal time to announce or conduct a survey depends on the purpose and the audience. Swan’s Island was expecting a modest upgrade to internet service by the existing service provider, so the committee needed to administer the survey before the upgrade took place in order to educate the community on the problem, and after the upgrade was made in order to see what service gaps were addressed or remained. The Swan’s Island Broadband Committee planned their survey via email correspondence over the course of one month.
     
  2. Design and review the survey. Conducting surveys properly helps to limit the amount of bias or inaccuracy in responses. How your questions are worded and ordered can influence what a respondent perceives about the possible answers. It takes some time to form questions for the survey and then design how they are asked. The committee decided to do this together, but it can be delegated to one or two members. The committee met for two hours, to finalize the plan, consult with Island Institute staff who helped with the survey design, and draft the questions. The questions were revised over the course of a week. It then took about a couple of hours to create the online survey from the drafted questions. Online surveys save considerable time with collecting and analyzing results.
     
  3. Conduct the survey. Sometimes the hardest part of a survey is getting people to take it. Think about using another mode to tell people about it or remind them to take it. The link to the Swan’s Island online survey was emailed and mailed to residents. Then committee members used word-of-mouth to remind people about it. They worked with small groups and individuals to take the survey, and in doing so, they shared more information about the topic. Over the course of the survey time period, many hours are expended in getting responses to the survey.
     
  4. Compile and review the responses. It’s helpful to look for patterns in survey responses and also individual responses. The committee anticipated seeing that the majority of residents would be unsatisfied with the current internet service and speed. On an individual level, a satisfied customer may have a unique internet service provider

CHALLENGES

  • Volunteers. Consider how community members will learn about the survey, and whether or not they need assistance to respond to it. Who will help with that? Who will be responsible for reviewing results, which can take a lot of time?
     
  • Cost. Especially for large communities, the cost of online surveys can get pretty high, and mailing surveys can also be expensive. Is there an organization than can provide in-kind support? Can paper surveys go out in mail already planned, e.g., tax bills? 

RESULTS

With a population that triples during the summer, the Swan’s Island Broadband Committee decided to run the survey all summer long. Over the course of three months, the committee has received responses from 17% of their residents. The committee will run another survey after upgrades are completed to see if those who responded with poor internet speeds are more satisfied or if additional improvements should be pursued.

Stakeholder Communication

Frequent and transparent communication helps maintain community support.

The Fox Islands Broadband Task Force wanted a place where they could share their progress on exploring current and future broadband needs and options with the residents of North Haven and Vinalhaven. As a Facebook page, they also post events, and share examples or stories about broadband efforts outside the community’s own progress.

HOW IT WORKS

One of the Task Force members created a Facebook page, which provides space for generating buzz about the topic and for sharing information. Task Force members post events that can be shared by page followers to other individuals who are their friends on Facebook.

KEY FACTORS

  • Set a plan. Determine how the Facebook page or group, or other online forum or site, will be used. Ask yourself what will be posted, how and when? What actions do you want people to take, or how do you want them to respond? Decide what types of posts will not be made, and what comments will not be tolerated: what types of comments will require attention immediately or will be deleted by the page managers.
     
  • Identify managers. Who will post updates? Who will help manage comments? Also identify others who can spur conversation and/or answer questions. Keeping the dialog going on social media is how posts get seen.

Q&A with Pat McCormick, member of Fox Islands Broadband Task Force

Q: What was the thought process on educating the community about broadband?

A: When people see or hear about something in more than one place, they’re more likely to take notice and learn about what’s going on. We wanted a place that allows us to create and share calendar events, and is easy to find.

Q: Why do a Facebook page?

A: Most people are already on Facebook, and there’s a Vinalhaven Facebook page that operates a lot like a community calendar. People already know how to use Facebook. When a few people “like” our page, their friends will see that the page was liked, and more and more people can find us quickly. Even those who aren’t Facebook members can still access the website address to see the page and events posted.

Q: What’s involved with managing the page?

A: Ideally, you’d like to have multiple people as administrators of the page, so that not just one person has to post all relevant information. Getting fresh content, which is also relatively diverse, posted is important, so that our activity shows up in people’s news feeds (they see it when they sign in to Facebook).

Q: It what ways has the page been helpful in educating the community about broadband?

A: We post photos of meetings and events, so people can see their friends on panels or in the audience. This gets community members more interested than they may have been in just being aware of an event occurring. When they see events or articles in their Facebook news feeds, along with other places they’ve come across or heard about broadband, it helps generate that buzz.

Q: What advice would you offer other communities thinking about using social media for education on broadband?

A: Ask people you know how they use social media, to get an idea of what would be most successful. Don’t expect any one way of disseminating information to be sufficient. Remain flexible, to make course corrections in case any problems come up.

CHALLENGES

  • Time commitment. Community outreach of any form takes time. To be effective, Facebook pages cannot be left alone without management. Discussions can run off topic at best and at worst can lead to negative outcomes. The Facebook page should support progress toward the goal of improving internet service.
     
  • Lack of feedback. Don’t expect positive feedback about the forum’s existence. People may still be benefiting from the information even though they aren’t responding publically. It might be a good idea to reach out to individual members of the group to ensure that the information is being received and is helpful.
     
  • Understand the limitations. Facebook pages or other online spaces cannot replace necessary face-to-face conversations with community members, in order to garner sufficient support for internet infrastructure improvement projects. Community meetings are essential, especially as a way to address any misinformation that may get around and to build credibility of the broadband working group.

RESULTS

Check out the Fox Islands Broadband Task Force Facebook page here.

Consider Regional and Policy Context

Being aware of the regional and policy around broadband can lead to the discovery of additional resources and opportunities, as well as help to anticipate any obstacles or challenges that might be faced as the community pursues better internet connectivity.

Putting together community meetings or a regional conference is a great way to provide space in order to discuss the economic and social value of broadband, and to build enthusiasm and support for internet improvement projects. By inviting internet service providers and public funders, communities can learn about the options available to them. Community members can collaboratively plan with one another and with neighboring communities.

HOW IT WORKS

In some cases, a regional organization can help convene communities. The Island Institute holds annual broadband summits to bring together coastal communities who are working to improve their internet connectivity. The first summit provided space and time for community learning and collaboration, as goals and options were identified. The second summit focused on lessons learned and strategies for pursuing broadband options. Learn more and access summit materials on our Broadband Resource page.

In other cases, communities reach out to one another as their broadband efforts overlap. In Casco Bay, three islands realized their solutions would be very costly but that they might find efficiencies by sharing their existing internet infrastructure and by increasing the number of potential customers, if they joined forces. In the course of investigating their existing infrastructure, several islands and Brooklin on the Blue Hill Peninsula discovered that they have shared internet and cell phone infrastructure networks, and any solution in one community could impact or be leveraged by another community.

KEY FACTORS

  • Identify a purpose. It’s important that a regional or strategic meeting be outcome-focused. This helps form an agenda, which will culminate in concrete steps to move forward.
     
  • Prepare facilitators and speakers. Clarify the goal of the meeting and each person's role. What information will attendees gain from the presentation, and what will be helpful to discuss? Prepare questions for your speakers based on those considerations. Provide thoughtfully crafted questions to initiate productive group discussion. Have experts float between group breakouts to further guide discussion toward developing next steps or other desired outcomes.
     
  • Mix it up. Maintain attendees’ engagement by having a thoughtful structure to the meeting: speaker presentation to full group, small group breakout sessions, large group panel discussions, etc. Different formats lend well to different purposes: inspiration or seeing the big picture, collaborative networking or planning next steps, learning how pieces come together or comparing stories, strategizing policy changes or sharing expertise, etc.
     
  • Provide networking time. Productive conversations may occur one-on-one, not just in group breakouts. Mixing up how attendees participate throughout the meeting can maximize the opportunities for valuable discussion.
     
  • Follow up. Ensure that participants take away something physical (or digital) from the meeting that will remind them of the purpose, goal, and next steps. Meeting materials can include speaker and expert biographies, and attendees’ contact information for continued learning and collaborations.

CHALLENGES

  • Time for planning. There are a lot of logistics around bringing groups of people together, whether the event is for a dozen or 100 people. Working backward from the date of the meeting can be helpful in planning: when does RSVP need to be done, when do invitations need to be sent, when do speakers or facilitators need to be confirmed, when does the venue need to be reserved, etc. Include recruitment of volunteers into this timeline: who will help plan and execute the meeting?
     
  • Cost. The benefits of holding a large meeting should justify the cost. Along with identifying the purpose of a meeting, consider its cost. Are there community or regional institutions interested in sponsoring the event? Are there donors or community members than can offer in-kind contributions, such as food?
     
  • Building in enough time. Sharing experiences involves providing detailed examples, and this can take longer than expected. It's helpful if the emcee can give the introduction and overview for the audience, so the speaker can dive into engaging stories about their work.
     
  • Timing of the event. Consider when the meeting should occur to maximize attendance. Keep individual schedules in mind and plan accordingly to ensure that everyone who should be included is able to be there. 

RESULTS

  • After a productive joint meeting, the three islands in Casco Bay formed the Down Bay Technology Task Force and issued a Request for Information to solicit engineered infrastructure designs that leverage existing networks for a cost-effective broadband solution.
     
  • The telecommunications working groups of several communities in Penobscot and Blue Hill Bays have connected through the Island Institute, to further understand how their potential options for improved internet and cell service are linked, and to consider how they may collaborate on solutions.

Municipal Funding

In combination with grant funding, Maine municipalities can chose among a few tools for self-financing internet infrastructure projects:

  • Tax-exempt bonds
  • Taxable bonds
  • Conventional bank loans

The Town of Islesboro explored the options when pursuing their broadband project (which is explained under the Feasibility Study solutions tab). These financing tools can be used to leverage grant funding and reduce the cost of subscription fees. Learn more about the Islesboro Broadband Committee here.

HOW IT WORKS

Municipal bonds provide access to low-cost capital funds. The Maine Municipal Bond Bank provides assistance with tax-exempt and taxable bonds. These two types of bonds, and conventional loans, each have advantages and disadvantages. Learn more at the Maine Municipal Bond Bank website.

KEY FACTORS

  • Consider how long it may take to acquire the funds. Bonds through the Maine Municipal Bond Bank usually take a minimum of 15 weeks. Selling taxable bonds on the open market or obtaining a conventional bank loan can take half as much time.
     
  • Consider how quickly the funds must be accessed. Tax-exempt bonds through the Maine Municipal Bond Bank are distributed just twice a year.
     
  • Anticipate the interest rate. Tax-exempt bonds have the lowest interest rates; taxable bonds have slightly higher rates; bank loans have substantially higher rates, which are often more variable.
     
  • Ask about up front fees. In addition to the potential cost of bond counsel, taxable bonds often come with high fees.

CHALLENGES

  • Limitations on tax-exempt bonds. The Islesboro Broadband Committee discovered that bonds are not likely to be tax-exempt when there is a business use of the municipal infrastructure. The IRS has strict regulations on cash flow and for how the project is operated.
     
  • Municipal form of government. With a council form of government, it can be faster to reach a decision and obtain funding; councils may meet every other week versus a town-meeting form of government that meets just once a year. Public hearings, submitting warrant articles, and posting warrant notices all takes months to complete before a town meeting.
     
  • Delayed construction. While waiting for bonds or long-term loans to be distributed, a municipality may have to access short-term financing to avoid delays in starting construction. Often this is done by seeking a bond anticipation note from a local lender.

RESULTS

  • In seeking municipal financing, the Town of Islesboro anticipates a subscription fee for internet service of just $30/month. This helps ensure that internet access is affordable, aiming to prevent a digital divide in the community.
     
  • Even once additional taxes are incorporated into the total monthly cost of broadband, about 75% of improved properties will not see an increase in the amount currently paid for internet and phone service. The new service will have 200x the speed of current service, along with other benefits. Check them out on the Islesboro Municipal Broadband website.

State Planning Grants

To help fund broadband projects, the ConnectME Authority awards grant funding to Maine communities. ConnectME offers planning grants for designing projects and infrastructure grants for construction. The City of Eastport obtained a planning grant to partner with Axiom Technologies. Learn more about Eastport's economic development strategy and support of telecommuters.

IMPLEMENTATION STEPS

  • Determine eligibility, and the requirements for the plans developed with these grant funds. The ConnectME website and staff can assist with this.
     
  • Complete and submit a pre-certification checklist. This is a stakeholder and information gathering process.
     
  • Complete and submit the grant application, which can be found with prior awardees on the ConnectME website.
     
  • Submit reporting forms to ConnectME.

CHALLENGES

  • Typically there are very limited funds available for planning grants. Communicate with any partners, e.g., those who will provide digital literacy or broadband infrastructure designs, early on in the process. Communicate with ConnectME staff well before the grant deadline to help ensure a very competitive application.
     
  • Conducting the tasks in the precertification checklist, and implementing a planning grant proposal, takes a considerable amount of time. Be sure to collaborate with other community members. (See the Create a Task Force solutions tab.)

RESULTS

  • The precertification process resulted in Eastport articulating their vision for the future as it relates to broadband, including promotion of the city as a telecommuter destination, and providing business and educational opportunities.
     
  • Read more about Eastport's efforts to attract more residents in The Quoddy Tides

State Infrastructure Grants

To help fund broadband projects, the ConnectME Authority awards grant funding to Maine communities. ConnectME offers planning grants for designing projects and infrastructure grants for construction. The Diamond Cove Association on Great Diamond Island partnered with an internet service provider to obtain an infrastructure grant. Learn more about infrastructure grants on the ConnectME website.

IMPLEMENTATION STEPS

  • Determine eligibility, and application requirements that can change yearly, by exploring the ConnectME website. Their staff can also assist with this.
     
  • Communicate with an internet service provider who will be applying for the grant with the community. Further review how to start the grant process.
     
  • Complete the application and evaluate its strength, before submitting it.
     
  • Continue working with internet service provider to ensure reporting forms are submitted to ConnectME.

Q&A WITH DIAMOND COVE INTERNET PROJECT LEADER MATT HOFFNER

Q: How did your community approach the problem of poor internet service?

A: The Diamond Cove Association saw that we couldn’t get renters because of the lack of internet, and a doctor also couldn’t get video conferencing to work, so he had to travel back to Boston. We wanted to attract and keep residents and visitors on the island longer, so the Association wanted to address this problem for its members.

Q: What requirements did you set for a broadband solution?

A: We wanted to supply a range of choices of internet speed for Association members, in order to support businesses and professionals working from home, and for a restaurant, general store, and inn on the island. The options had to be cheaper than $100,000. Our current internet service provider quoted an upgrade cost of over $100,000. Another potential internet service provider also quoted $100,000 for on-island infrastructure but not including the fiber that would have had to be run from mainland.

Q: What was it like applying for the ConnectME grant?

A: The great thing about the infrastructure grant was that it made a broadband solution affordable for the Association. Once we found an internet service provider to partner with, applying for the grant is what took the most time. After discovering that wireless technology would work for us, and we wouldn't have to pay for new fiber to be run from the mainland, we were able to move forward with our relationship with the internet service provider. Internet service providers do much of the application process for ConnectME infrastructure grants. With the grant, the Association only had to raise less than half the cost of the project!

CHALLENGES

  • Current funding available for infrastructure grants has not met all communities' needs. Communicate with ConnectME staff and your internet service provider partner early and often to help ensure a very competitive application.
     
  • To date, infrastructure grants have required substantial funding matches. Be sure to collaborate with other community members and partners to explore all possibilities for matching funds required. (See the Create a Taskforce solutions tab.)

RESULTS

  • With an internet service provider partner, and a ConnectME infrastructure grant covering just over 50% of the cost of the project, the Diamond Cove Association needed to raise just $35,000 to build a whole new internet network.
     
  • Diamond Cove residents now experience ten times the internet speed, and much better reliability, than had previously.
     
  • All infrastructure grants awarded are listed on the ConnectME website

Improve Digital Literacy

Digital literacy is having the knowledge and competence in understanding and using digital connection to the internet.

Addressing familiarity with accessing the internet and improving skills to use the internet benefits businesses growth, workforce development, health access, community and civic engagement, student education, and all around quality of life. Improving digital literacy also drives support for better connected communities, for the economic and social benefits, increasing adoption or subscription to internet service.

HOW IT WORKS

In meeting with economic and community development leaders all along Maine's coast, we heard that island and coastal business owners would like to make their businesses more efficient through the use of digital tools like QuickBooks for bookkeeping and social media for marketing. As a result, Island Institute teamed up with a national leader in addressing digital literacy, Axiom Education and Training Center (AETC), to deliver digital workshops on islands and virtually, to support businesses on or from their own home turf. Doing hands-on workshops helps people feel more confident about using the digital tools for their benefit. Networking that occurs during these events is also valuable to participants who want to learn and share how they approach marketing, save money, or do what they do with digital tools.

Q&A WITH AETC EDUCATION COORDINATOR SHARON FOSS AND INSTRUCTOR JESSE PEREZ

Q: What does digital literacy mean to you?
SF: Digital literacy is anything in electronics or computers that can make life easier or help you find a job.

Q: Why does it make sense to address digital literacy in communities?
SF: We help small businesses stay competitive in the large business world. Being able to do your bookkeeping from your computer, or even your smart phone, saves time so you can spend more time on other important things to build up your business. We got started in this work with fishermen and farmers, in learning technology to support their businesses. These skills also build up their resumes.

Q: What are some examples of addressing digital literacy?
JP: Offering classes and specialized training for businesses and professionals, or really anyone. Classes we offer include: Training on all the Microsoft products, marketing with tools like Photoshop and Facebook, learning QuickBooks for bookkeeping, designing a website using WordPress, running a business from a mobile device, and much more!

Q: And people like doing these classes?
JP: A lot of businesses have come up to me after class to inquire about other topics, to thanks us, or tell us how they have improved their business. One business owner was excited to tell me that the class finally got them to set up QuickBooks, it was saving them a lot of time. It’s been really satisfying to those entrepreneurs.

S: One agricultural company we supported has chosen to take advantage of every single class offered since, and we’ve seen their operations grow!

Q: So addressing digital literacy is a must?
J: Digital literacy is really important for any community trying to invest in its community members. People quickly realize how important digital literacy is to revitalization or economic development efforts.

RESULTS

  • The Swan's Island Broadband Committee first hosted digital workshops for small artists and to help create the buzz about improving their internet connectivity on the island. After one series of workshops, the lobster co-op requested another series for lobster harvesters and their bookkeepers. The positive feedback and this type of reaction remind us how much these workshops are needed and that they are working.
     
  • Businesses are sharing their success from digital workshops provided by AETC in collaboration with Island Institute thanks to funding from the John T. Gorman Foundation.

Consider WiFi Hotspots

Providing public access to the internet for your community's residents and visitors is a great way to boost the quality of the experience they have, and the economic activity that occurs, in key areas of the community.

Setting up WiFi hotspots in downtown or other public areas is a fast and cost-effective way to bring the internet to residents and visitors. Another way to support commerce and education among community members is a mobile WiFi program at the library or other institution, which allows the internet to be "checked out" for the day or week.

HOW IT WORKS

Public WiFi hotspots are set up from a point of connection to the internet and electrical service, such as a town hall, business building, visitor center, etc. Having people connect through the public WiFi means that that individual businesses or institutions don't have to share their own internet connection but still get to benefit from their customers or constituents being online.

For example, a business can run credit cards with confidence, while customers post photos of their meal online or share the business's location/website with friends on social media. While people come to WiFi hotspots, mobile WiFi devices go to the people. These are small routers that connect the internet from cellular networks to your computer or other devices. Mobile WiFi hotspots provide affordable (free) internet for students to do homework from home, for families and elders to access health services, for young adults to get an education online, for the workforce to do extensive job searches or obtain training online, and for community-wide events in locations without wired internet.

Q&A WITH AXIOM TECHNOLOGIES COO MARK OUELLETTE

Q: Why would a community be interested in the idea of offering public WiFi?

A: The point of this kind of connection has two big positives: While not meant for daily use, a hotspot is a place where people who don't have an internet connection could get a connection 24/7 — it's about equal access to all. The other point is to provide connectivity to people passing through; it's a way for your community to be viewed positively, for example, by those who work downtown or visitors to the community. It can also build a recognition of the importance of internet connections more broadly throughout the community.

Q: A few communities across Maine have implemented public WiFi hotspots. What outcomes were important for them as they planned these projects?

A: Machias wanted to support the farmers' market and nearby pop-up businesses, which use Square or other payment options for customers, and where a lot of people are walking and shopping. They wanted an outcome of people using the WiFi, so we track how many users and how many unique, individual users there are. In South Portland, it's all about the gazebo at their park — it's about bringing the internet to the people, or attracting people to certain areas like the downtown of Millinocket. For Chebeague, the place was where people are waiting, and connectivity on the boat ride to and from the island was goal.

Q: Are communities or others concerned about users taking advantage of the free service?

A: Some internet service providers think that free public WiFi eats away at their potential market base, but Axiom doesn't see this to be true, largely because it's inconvenient to the user. There can be a limit on the amount of data used. One cap is the total capacity of the system, but one user can still hog the bandwidth, so you can cap individual users to 2-3 gigs, or limit the time they can be connected to a half hour or so before a reconnection is required. There's also another option: a paid-for service where users have to pay a few dollars for so many hours of service, or pay for higher speeds/bandwidth. That could be attractive to campgrounds, festivals, or marinas.

Q: What do communities need to consider in choosing the hotspot location, and what about cost?

A: The location of the hotspot has to have a good internet connection, and be in a central location for the potential users of the WiFi. The upload speed/bandwidth is important for the users' experience of the connection: Users want to upload photos and posts, and pop-up businesses want to run credit cards.

In the first year, the cost of setting up the system is about $3,000; every year there are maintenance costs of about $80/month. Finally, there's the subscription to the internet service. Businesses interested in being sponsors are coming to Axiom asking what communities would be ready to implement a public WiFi hotspot. Businesses have an interest because the landing page upon connecting to WiFi could be an advertising spot, and the signage recognizes the sponsors. Sponsors can be businesses, local organizations, municipalities, internet service providers, or some combination thereof. For Machias, Bangor Savings Bank covers system cost, and Axiom absorbs the internet subscription cost. Sometimes local economic development organizations sponsor the system cost and/or the internet cost.

Q: So how has having a public WiFi hotspot mattered?

A: Well, Machias has loved it, and is actually looking to do more hotspots. The successful use has also lead to discussions about a larger broadband project connecting all homes and businesses. For Greenville, it's been a great catalyst, very cheap and quick to set up as well, for raising connectivity concerns beyond the hotspot location. Hotspots can help build momentum toward a larger broadband project, by creating ways to experience the benefits of better internet connectivity. 

CHALLENGES

  • Existing networks. If there isn't broadband in the area to set up public WiFi hotspots, or there isn't good cell phone service in the area where mobile WiFi devices would be used, then the lack of these networks would need to be addressed first. See the tab "Assess Infrastructure Options" for ideas on to address infrastructure needs.
     
  • Negotiating and partnering with service provider. See the "Assess Infrastructure Options" tab and the example "Work with an Incumbent Provider" for the best practices on approaching a service provider about public WiFi hotspots. They can help you determine how many hotspot locations you need to set up for the area you're hoping to cover. Much of these best practices would also apply in determining the best service level for mobile WiFi devices to meet the community's needs. Offering these devices often results in a monthly bill for service, much like a cell phone bill.
     
  • Covering the cost of the WiFi Hotspots. Like any broadband, there are many ways to fund hotspots (see the "Fund Broadband Projects" tab for more ideas). For public WiFi, the community may seek sponsorships from area businesses. Mobile WiFi hotspots also incur some cost associated with staff training, and time toward training patrons and troubleshooting, in addition to setting up policies in the case of damage, loss, or theft.
     
  • Spreading the good news. Once hotspots are available, people need to learn about it, so they can start using the internet. Identify community members or entities that can help with outreach efforts. Information in the tab "Engage the Community" may be helpful in planning outreach.

RESOURCES

  • In Maine, the State Library is a great place to start for information on mobile WiFi hotspots, and the Downtown Alliance is a good networking source for other communities running downtown public WiFi projects.
     
  • The Institute for Museum and Library Services produced a guide on Starting a Mobile Hotspot Lending Program, with background, case studies, implementation steps and challenges, and additional online resources. 
     
  • Vermont developed a comprehensive toolkit for implementing public WiFi hotspots in small communities. This article highlights the bigger picture goal or vision of small-town Bethel, VT, that drove a successful public WiFi hotspot project there. Knowing that the hotspots are part of a larger mission helps incentivize funders, whether businesses or nonprofits.
     
  • This Chicago Tribune article about a township (called Maine) in Illinois provides a good overview of the details involved in offering mobile WiFi hotspots.

RESULTS

  • Through a grant, Washington County libraries were able to initiate mobile WiFi programs. Cherryfield, Jonesport, Calais, Steuben, Lubec, and Eastport all have libraries that participated in the Checkout the Internet Project.
     
  • With Axiom Technologies, Machias is taking a proactive approach to developing their Downtown WiFi by seeking additional businesses to sponsor more hotspots, which are identified with physical signs that also advertise the sponsoring businesses.
     
  • The City of South Portland uses their information technology budget to offer free WiFi in key parts of the city.
     
  • Greenville is going through a larger economic development planning process that internet connectivity will be a central focal point.