China Broadband Committee (CBC) continues talks with Unitel

by Mary Grow

China Broadband Committee (CBC) members met again with representatives of Unity-based Unitel to talk about a cooperative project expanding broadband service to China residents who currently have no service or inadequate (by 2022 standards) service.

The focus was on expanding service to homes that are currently underserved (have slow internet speed, unreliable service or other issues) or unserved (have no broadband access at all). This extension of a fiber network might be the first phase or phases of a multi-year town-wide upgrade.

Joining the discussion with CBC members at a June 15 meeting were Unitel representatives Michael Akers, Director of Network Operations, and Jayne Sullivan, Director of Internal/External Support; and consultant John Dougherty, Vice President and General Manager at Bangor-based Mission Broadband.

Unitel is now part of Direct Communications, a company based in Rockland, Idaho, that supports broadband service in rural areas.

To develop the planned China project into a proposal to present to town officials and residents, group members agreed they will need two things: specific locations of underserved and unserved areas to be upgraded, and money.

They had a colorful map of China identified as a Connect Maine Map, with a web address: https://maps.sewall.com/connectme/public/. The website has a lengthy note that says, among other things, that most of the map information was reported by internet service providers and that most of it dates from September 2019, with some updates to September 2021.

CBC members Tod Detre, Janet Preston and Jamie Pitney all said the map showed full service in areas they knew to be at best underserved.

In a follow-up email, Detre questioned whether Yorktown Road, which runs through Thurston Park, really has full service, as the map shows. Thurston Park Committee Chairman Jeanette Smith replied that there are no utility poles or lines anywhere in the park, and therefore no internet service.

“The map is the gospel” for funding, Sullivan said, so it needs to be accurate. Akers thinks it is up to a local group – like the CBC – to provide correct information.

Akers presented a preliminary cost estimate of around $1.2 million to provide service to the areas mapped as unserved or underserved. The group agreed that up to half the money might come from Connect Maine grants specifically designated to provide new or improved service to unserved and underserved areas.

Dougherty and Akers talked about Unitel and Direct Communications providing perhaps as much as $300,000. These very tentative estimates would leave the Town of China with about another $300,000 to pay, which Pitney suggested might come from the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) fund. The TIF document currently in effect appropriates $30,000 a year for broadband for 10 years.

Another possibility, committee chairman Robert O’Connor said, is to allocate the next installment of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to broadband expansion.

Akers’ plan includes a new service building in South China near the junction of Routes 32 and 202. The building would be about 15-by-15-feet, or smaller, he said, and would house electronic equipment. If plans come to fruition, CBC members may well be looking for a building or a lot to lease or buy.

O’Connor made a short presentation to China select board members at their June 21 meeting. On June 15 CBC members tentatively scheduled their next meeting for 5 p.m. Wednesday, July 6; on June 21, O’Connor tentatively rescheduled it to 5 p.m. Tuesday, July 5, before that evening’s select board meeting.

Help by doing speed check

China residents who want to help update the Connect Maine map, or only to find out how good their internet service is, are invited to do speed tests. The link to do them, provided by Jayne Sullivan of Unitel, is https://www.mainebroadbandcoalition.org/. To complete the test successfully, residents must carefully check even what seem like unnecessary boxes, like the one that says “check address.”

 
 

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