ROCKPORT, Maine - Few states in the nation are worse than Maine when it comes to Internet connectivity and reliability. But today, a town on the mid-coast flipped the switch on its own ultra-fast Web hook-up. The municipally-owned, fiber optic network, serving parts of Rockport, immediately makes Maine an unlikely leader in the push for greater access to high speed Internet service.
Fewer than 25 percent of all U.S. consumers have access to the highest speed Internet service, which runs on fiber optic networks. "There is no infrastructure question more important to the future of the United States," says Dr. Susan Crawford, Harvard Law School professor and co-director of the university's Berkman Center for the Internet & Society.
Crawford says the U.S. risks being left behind in the global economy, unless it greatly expands access to fiber optic networks. She likens it to the urgent need to bring electricity to rural areas in the 1930s and the push to build out the national highway system in the 1950's. "FDR led for electricity. We wouldn't have had a federal highway system without Eisenhower," she says. "And without local leadership, we're not going to see fiber around the country."
Local leadership, she says, like the kind taking place in Rockport on Maine's mid-coast. On Monday, U.S. Sen. Angus King asked Crawford to join him at the Maine Media Workshop to flip the switch on a unique project: the first municipally-owned, fiber optic Internet network in the state, and one of just a handful in the nation.
Sen. King says seeds of the project began with the so-called three ring binder - an initial network of fiber optical cable running through western, northern and Downeast Maine - funded by the 2009 federal stimulus.
"And then the town, and this institution, put resources together in order to get the fiber off the "interstate highway" and into these buildings in downtown Rockport," King said, "and then it's going to grow from there."
The town of Rockport and Maine Media Workshop also worked closely with Network Maine and Internet provider GWI on the project. Installation of the fiber optic lines cost roughly $80,000. The roughly 70 users along the line can access it by opening an account with GWI, which will pay Rockport $14 a month for every user it signs up.
"This is, admittedly, a small system. But it's a huge step forward," says Town Manager Rick Bates. Bates says Rockport has one of the most picturesque harbors in all of Maine, "but with inferior broadband, the sharpest and most innovative entrepreneurs in the world will certainly vacation here, but they couldn't live here and they couldn't start a business here."
Now they can, says Bates, who notes that the new system will operate at a speed of 1 GB per second. Maine Media says the ultra-fast network will help its instructors and students upload and download large media files much more quickly. Bates says the town is hoping to secure grants to expand the service along Routes 1 and 90.
Sen. King, meantime, is vowing to push more municipalities across the country to follow in Rockport's footsteps. "Cable TV is something you can take or leave. You can watch it or not. Internet service, to me, is a different animal. It's something you can't live without," King said. "And to me that's what justifies giving it a different kind of treatment."
Ideally, says King, cities and towns would have their own broadband networks, creating competitive marketplaces, where Internet service providers could come in and compete for customers.
The big cable companies, though, don't think that's such a great idea. They spend millions of dollars every year trying to persuade both Democrats and Republicans to keep things as they are, lobbying that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.