Islanders are leading the way to better broadband

Stephenie MacLagan
Posted 2016-11-15

Stephenie MacLagan is the Island Institute’s economic development associate.

Had you told me eighteen months ago that my job would entail being a broadband guru, I would have scoffed at the thought and asked, “What would a natural resource economist know about broadband?” After a year and half, I’ve come to learn what islanders already knew: broadband is the high-speed, reliable internet that is essential for economic sustainability. Broadband also provides educational opportunities, increases access to health and government services, and ensures that the rural communities on which Maine’s identity is based will persevere into the future.

While the lack of broadband is ubiquitous along Maine islands and remote coastal areas, I’ve learned that there is tremendous variation in communities’ broadband goals and their unique approaches to solving this problem. The Island Institute commissioned Tilson Technology to conduct a Broadband Feasibility Study for Maine’s Islands in 2015, and it confirmed that not a single island community in Maine is universally served by internet speeds sufficient to meet the federal and state broadband definitions. To review and share the study, we held a broadband conference that autumn and invited interested island community members to learn more about opportunities for improving internet connectivity. In the year since, each community has taken their own path toward investigating their options and pursuing solutions that make sense given their distinct characteristics, circumstances, and aspirations.

In October of this year, I had the pleasure of hearing from Maine’s islands about their progress at the Broadband Summit focused on lessons learned and strategies for moving forward. I was inspired by all of the presentations, but there are a few that I think are indicative of the extremely different ways that people are approaching the same problem.

Aspiring to be year-round

Long Island’s broadband working group is making great strides in their quest for better internet connectivity. Residents of this Casco Bay community initiated a grassroots effort to focus on broadband, and then sought municipal authorization to report to their select board. While these residents intend to continue pursuit of broadband, they agreed to prioritize the mission bestowed by the municipal government: to explore all options for improved internet service.

The group met almost weekly to synthesize information collected from various internet service providers and other broadband experts, and to strategize in advance of meeting with providers. These meetings culminated in a recommendation report to the select board. Should the select board accept the recommendations, the working group anticipates holding a public meeting to share the report and seek input on next steps in pursuit of broadband. Long Island aspires to have a stable year-round population, with great economic and social opportunities. 

Meeting crisis with grit

No other community had the ups and downs of crisis at their door like the Cranberry Isles. Thought they are two islands, and traditionally two communities, residents Great Cranberry and Little Cranberry (Islesford) joined forces to create one broadband working group made up of fishermen, librarians, technical experts, public safety and municipal officials, and business owners. Then the island community of Islesford was faced with the possibility of losing what little internet connection it had. Infrastructure serving much of the island is located on private property, and the internet service provider will not relocate it free of charge.

Despite the very busy lives of these working group members, they reach consensus and communicate it broadly, in part because of a formal meeting procedure that helps ensure continuity from one meeting to the next. In the face of crisis, residents quickly mobilized to strategize an action plan. As it turned out, Islesford has not yet lost its internet service; however, this event expedited the community’s pursuit of broadband. The working group continues to develop a Request for Information in the hopes of identifying an internet service provider who is committed to following through with implementation of new or expanded internet infrastructure. I have learned that islanders have grit: There is no question or hesitancy in taking their destiny into their own hands. Beyond this sign of determined resilience, they remain buoyant, optimistic and enthusiastic for a prosperous future.

Connecting with natural resources

Another community that sees telecommuting opportunities as a way to help ensure year-round residency is Isle au Haut. With the goals of providing lobster businesses with access to financial services and capabilities like bookkeeping, and attracting and retaining new businesses, the community is seeking improved internet connectivity. This past summer, residents were brought together to discuss tourism around the National Park and the Maine Island Trail, and that conversation included the need to address broadband for economic development. I find it inspiring to see how these communities face many changes in their demographics and economies, but their desire to stay connected to surrounding natural resources remains fervent. 

Even though Isle au Haut island didn’t have a formal working group over the past year, residents communicated their needs to the incumbent service provider TDS in regional negotiations that included the islands of Frenchboro, Swan’s, and Matinicus. Following these discussions, there are now portions of the island that can receive internet speeds of 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload. At the broadband summit, residents recognized how much other islands were accomplishing with a formal broadband working group. Isle au Haut residents intend to formalize their working group and then determine how best to assess the internet service gaps they still have across the island.

From island to island, I am astounded over and over by how community members not only want to survive on the land and sea to which they feel rooted, but that they intend to thrive in a way that maintains their heritage of reliance on the coast’s natural resources while becoming more connected to the rest of the world. Broadband can strengthen lobstering and other fishing businesses; it can refine a community’s tourism industry; it can broaden customer bases of businesses, many of which utilize natural resources or resulting inspiration in their products; and it can provide educational, health, and government services to improve workforce development and quality of life. 

We are cataloguing the stories from communities and their lessons learned in our What Works Solutions Library. Check back often to discover more solutions still being added under the Broadband challenge.