China broadband committee continues developing proposal

by Mary Grow

China Broadband Committee (CBC) members continued discussion of their developing proposal for extended and improved China broadband service at their April 8 meeting.

Joining them virtually were Mission Broadband consultants Mark Van Loan and John Dougherty, and Mark Ouellette, President of Axiom Technologies, of Machias. Axiom is the company CBC members chose to negotiate with, from three respondents to their request for proposals.

The April 8 discussion concentrated on three points: costs, the need for better service and plans to explain those points to China selectmen and voters.

Ouellette and the Mission Broadband consultants had revised Axiom’s original cost estimate from around $9 million for a complete new system to around $6 million. Both figures are based on many assumptions. Four main ones involve timing; the amount of work that will be needed; outside funding sources; and the “take rate,” how many people will sign up for a new service.

Timing: there was consensus that interest rates are likely to increase, and the plan includes the town borrowing through the Maine Bond Bank. Van Loan added that the contractor Axiom works with to build systems predicts a five percent increase in materials costs by June.

Amount of work: Van Loan expects any contractor to bid high and hope to save money. For example, he said, a bid is likely to cover replacing all the poles needed to carry the wiring, but the contractor might find some or most of the existing poles useable.

Outside funding sources: one possibility is that federal funds will cover part of the work China needs, depending on federal regulations and funds available. Ouellette suggested China’s project might be eligible for state planning money.

Take rate: the more people pay monthly user fees, the more revenue comes in to cover operating costs and debt repayment, and until a new service is defined and explained the take rate is a guestimate.

To the experts on the committee, the need for better service is a given. They cited results of a survey, to which 308 China residents responded, describing how they use internet in pandemic conditions.

Sixty percent of respondents said they needed the internet to work from home and 25 percent used it for their home office. Forty percent used it for elementary and high school education and another 11 percent for post-secondary education.

Twenty-three percent of respondents used the internet for telemedicine, a use that committee members expect will increase.

More than 80 percent used the internet for at least one of these categories: researching and getting news; filing taxes; social media; and entertainment.

Committee members Tod Detre and Jamie Pitney explained that Spectrum, which provides broadband to an estimated 70 percent of China residents who are connected, lacks technical capability to increase its speed up – the amount of information a user can send – to meet contemporary needs.

Spectrum was designed with more speed down, so that users can download from the web, with the original focus on entertainment. Now, Detre said, people are sending more – making zoom calls, sharing photos and videos, hosting games, for example.

Suppose, he said, someone in the house is making a zoom call. That call will use most of the available bandwidth going up, and if someone in the next room starts playing a video game, the zoom call will die.

An important difference, Detre and Ouellette said, is that Spectrum uses copper for the final connection from the system to the user’s house, and copper has limited capacity. Axiom uses fiber, which is longer-lived and, as they described it, more adaptable.

Ouellette is unimpressed with the quality of service provided by Consolidated Communications, the company that supplies the other 30 percent of China’s broadband.

Returning to Selectman Wayne Chadwick’s question at the April 1 CBC meeting, Detre asked Ouellette what would happen if something like the 1998 ice storm took down lines all over town. Ouellette replied that both the town and Axiom have insurance; as planning progresses, they can decide which would provide less expensive coverage for a town-owned internet system.

As the virtual meeting ended, Chairman Robert O’Connor mentioned the Spectrum outage earlier in the week that he said had canceled scheduled zoom meetings in other towns. China’s new system will need built-in redundancy, he said later, so a single downed line or equipment malfunction “won’t take out the whole town.”

CBC members have invited China selectmen to a joint meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, April 29. Ouellette said he would forward more information to Van Loan and Dougherty that they could summarize for CBC members to share with selectmen.

CBC meetings are also scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, April 15, and Thursday, April 22. The virtual meetings can be viewed as they occur and on tape via the live stream connection at the bottom left of the Town of China website,


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