Success of the Three Ring Binder May Not Be Measured in Fiber to the Home Connections
Last Friday, I had the privilege of attending Maine Fiber Company’s announcement of the completion of the Three Ring Binder – on budget and ahead of schedule. As you might expect, since that time I’ve given careful attention to the numerous articles, editorials and TV newscasts covering the story. Two things are clear to me from that five days’ observation.
- Most people, including news media, the public and even some policy makers still have no idea what the Three Ring Binder is or how it is intended to help Mainers.
- This lack of understanding leads project detractors to persist in predicting failure when every indication is that the project has already been successful in improving Maine’s broadband speed and coverage and will continue to do so.
The clearest example of these two dynamics at work was Charles Lawton’s recent editorial in the Portland Press Herald “Fiber-optic network is built – will Mainers connect?” Lawton, a member of Maine’s broadband task force, is better informed than most about Maine’s broadband strategy. His central argument is that we need to invest more in growing broadband adoption, rather than in building networks. Growing adoption is (and should be) a core element of Maine’s broadband plan, but his argument that we shouldn’t invest in networks is not supported by the facts.
One of his supporting arguments belies a misunderstanding of what the network is and why it was constructed. He says that “In Maine today, the demand for fiber optic Internet speeds just doesn’t exist.” Even if we agreed with that statement, it’s irrelevant to the network’s chances of success. The Three Ring Binder wasn’t built to provide fiber optic service to homes. Instead, it was built to enable independent ISP’s to expand coverage in rural areas and create competitive offerings that improve connection speeds and drive down costs. Since, according to Maine’s broadband plan 73% of homes that can get broadband subscribe to some form of it, it seems that demand is there.
The Three Ring Binder is a Middle-Mile Fiber Optic Network
It’s quite clear that majority of people talking about this story don’t understand the concept of a middle-mile network and what it means to broadband service. I wrote a blog post on the subject of the middle-mile last year, so I won’t do so again. However, it is important that we understand the concept before making judgments.
The best analogy I’ve heard is that the middle-mile is like the Interstate highway system. The Interstate system has lots of capacity and you can go much faster on it than you can on other roads, but it’s also limited access. You get on and off at designated exits, there are no homes and very few businesses directly accessible from it. To get to those houses and businesses, you must first get off the highway at an exit and take a major road, and then a side street. If the Three Ring Binder is like the Interstate, we should not expect homes and businesses to connect directly to it.
Instead, it’s up to ISP’s to build last-mile networks that bridge the gap between the dwelling and the “interstate.” These might be fiber optic networks and they might not. Whether or not these customers are demanding fiber optic speeds yet is secondary to the question of do they want broadband at all. With this understanding, we can look at the projects of several of Maine’s small ISP’s and see what the near-term impacts of the middle-mile project will be.
The Three Ring Binder’s Early Impacts
So, what projects have we seen so far that connect to the Three Ring Binder and will either increase coverage, increase competition, or improve broadband speed? As Dwight Allison of Maine Fiber indicated in his remarks Friday, 12 companies have already begun using the network and 29 more are in active discussion about joining. Here are 8 projects that show that we’re headed in the right direction. Clearly, with so many companies getting connected there will be more:
- Pioneer Broadband used the Three Ring Binder to help it deploy high speed DSL networks in areas of Blaine, Masardis, Bridgewater and Mars Hill that previously had no broadband access.
- As Tim McAfee stated in his opening remarks on Friday, Pioneer has also built a fiber to the home network in the remote communities of Amity and Big Lake Township that previously had no broadband access.
- Craig Gunderson indicated in his remarks Friday that Oxford Networks has used the Three Ring Binder to help major wireless carriers connect remote cell sites with 3G and 4G wireless broadband services. Improved cellular coverage was another major goal of the grant.
- Cornerstone Communications built fiber laterals to connect DSL equipment to serve households in remote parts of Charleston, Chester, Hudson, Lincoln and Old Town that didn’t have high speed Internet access before.
- GWI is now offering business and residential broadband service in eight communities as a direct result of connecting to the Three Ring Binder including Dover-Foxcroft, Calais, Lincoln, Danforth, Madawaska, Ashland, Dayton and soon in Wiscasset. This introduces a new competitor to those markets and the increased competition should drive down prices and improve performance for customers.
- GWI has begun constructing a network we call Gigabit Main Street in Orono and Old Town that will deliver gigabit level fiber optic connections to homes in those communities. We’re doing this at least partly to test demand for faster services. Depending upon what we find – we expect to build more networks like it.
- GWI is in the final stages of completing a fixed wireless deployment in the town of Waldoboro that will connect to the Three Ring Binder and deliver service to hundreds of un-served homes in the Midcoast.
- Axiom Technologies uses the Three Ring Binder to support broadband deployments in Whiting, East Machias, and several other communities that lacked broadband access in the past.
Collectively, these broadband projects will provide broadband service to over 1500 homes that couldn’t get it before, expand cellular coverage and increase the options available to tens of thousands more residents in small towns statewide, and it’s just the beginning.