Tag Archive for: broadband

OPINIONS: A “yes” vote urged on broadband ARPA warrant article


by Bob O’Connor
China Broadband Committee

The China Broadband Committee was formed in 2017 to find a way to bring the best Broadband internet solution to China. Last year we chose Axiom Fiber to build that system. The selectboard and townspeople voted down our proposal last November because of the risk that it could potentially adversely affect property taxes due to repayment of the $6 million bond if not enough townspeople signed up for this service.

As a committee, we went back to the drawing board to look at all possible solutions again. We reviewed proposals from our incumbent providers, Spectrum Charter, and Consolidated Communications. We found the Spectrum bulk proposal too financially risky for the town. Consolidated was not interested in expanding into China because we are in “Classic” China Telephone territory. The company might consider expansion in the distant future, seven or more years from now.

Unitel, of Unity, Maine, has been in the telephone business since 1904, about the same time that the China Telephone Company got its start. Unitel first offered fiber internet to the home in a limited area starting in 2015. Late last year, Unitel was acquired by Direct Communications, a larger family-owned company that offers fiber to the home in a few rural areas in a few US states.

Our broadband committee started working with Direct Communications (DC) shortly after they acquired Unitel last year. Unitel/DC are looking to expand to towns around Unity with the help of the current grants and funds. These grant funds can be spent to cover areas of our town that the Maine Connectivity Authority (MCA) defines as “Least Served” and “Unserved”. This includes about 25 percent of homes in China that typically have DSL or no service.

MCA now classifies the rest of town as “Underserved”, meaning that their service does not meet the minimum speed of 100/100 Mbps. This includes those with cable service from Spectrum. All new internet projects funded by MCA must be built to the minimum 100/100Mbps standard.

Our currently proposed project with Unitel/DC is to build a fiber backbone in town that is strong enough, that is, has enough fibers, to serve the whole town while initially serving the Least Served and Unserved areas. After this project is complete, Unitel/DC will continue to expand to the rest of the town, the underserved folks.

Town funding from this project is from the TIF fund of $30,000/year for 10 years for a total of $300,000. This expenditure was previously approved by the voters in 2021. Also, we are requesting $70,000. from a part of the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that China has received.

Unitel/DC will match our $370,000 contribution to the project.

We are also applying for an MCA “Connect the Ready” grant for about $460,000. The total project is approximately $1.2 million dollars with the Town contributing 31 percent, Unitel/DC contributing 31 percent and the MCA grant covering the remaining 38 percent of the project.

We will only apply for this grant if the townspeople vote in favor of the $70,000 ARPA fund distribution on the Warrant Article on November 8, 2022.

The town selectboard unanimously (5/0) recommended a “yes” vote on this $70,000 Broadband ARPA Warrant article. The Budget committee also recommended a “yes” vote (5/1).

Neither the TIF nor the ARPA funds will raise property taxes, and Unitel/DC would fully own and operate this service with no requirement for involvement from town staff.

Fiber internet service by Unitel / Direct Communications will improve internet speeds and reliability, increase value of your home, encourage economic development in town, allow for online learning, education, work, telehealth, and entertainment at an affordable and competitive price.

We appreciate your support. Thank you.

Read more about China’s broadband initiatives here.

China select board postpones action on broadband expansion

by Mary Grow

China select board members were joined by local, out-of-town and out-of-state spokespeople for broadband service at the July 18 select board meeting.

Robert O’Connor, chairman of the China Broadband Committee (CBC), had shared with select board members and town attorney Amanda Meader a proposed memorandum of agreement (MOU) with Direct Communications, based in Rockland, Idaho, and its local subsidiary, UniTel of Unity, Maine. Representatives of both telecommunications companies spoke with select board members.

Because Meader had raised questions based on her preliminary review of the document, select board members postponed action. They proposed direct discussions between Meader and a Direct Communications attorney.

Select board members decided to go ahead with a smaller project on the July 18 agenda, drafting a local fireworks ordinance that they hope to have ready to submit to voters on Nov. 8.

They do not intend to ban fireworks in town, as board chairman Ronald Breton said some Maine towns have done. They do intend to set a nightly curfew intended to benefit people who have to get up early to go to work or send children to school.

In other business, board members unanimously:

  • Appointed Nicholas French as China’s Licensed Plumbing Inspector; and
  • Renewed the pawnbrokers license for Wildwood Pawn, Inc., on Gunshop Road, off Morrill Road.

The next regular China select board meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 1.

Seek volunteers for comprehensive plan committee

China select board members are seeking volunteers for the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee and a Regional School Unit (RSU) 18 Cost Share Committee.

The job of the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee, which they decided to limit to seven members, is to review the revised town plan that voters approved at the June 14 town business meeting and decide what should be done, and by what official or committee, to carry out recommendations.

The RSU #18 Cost Share Committee, for which three China members will join representatives from the other four towns (Belgrade, Oakland, Rome and Sidney), will review the formula by which costs are divided among the five towns. Select board chairman Ronald Breton said the current formula bases cost-sharing 75 percent on each town’s property valuation and 25 percent on each town’s student enrollment.

China residents interested in serving on either committee should contact the town office.

CHINA: Town and Direct Communications, Unitel to work on broadband expansion

At their July 5 meeting, China select board members recognized Tim Grotton, center, for his years of service at the transfer station. Board Chairman Ronald Breton, left, and Town Manager Rebecca Hapgood, right, praised his management, crediting him with keeping the facility clean and setting an example for the rest of the staff with his polite and helpful attitude. Not just the transfer station, Hapgood added; Grotton would fill in when the public works department needed an extra man for anything from cutting a tree to controling traffic, and he always responded to her call of “Hey, Tim, I need….”

by Mary Grow

China select board members have taken under advisement a memorandum of understanding with Direct Communications of Rockland, Idaho, represented locally by subsidiary UniTel, of Unity, to expand broadband service to town residents.

Members of China’s Broadband Committee (CBC) discussed a cooperative arrangement at several meetings, the most recent an hour and a half before the July 5 select board meeting. UniTel representatives had just received the proposed memorandum from Idaho; CBC members reviewed it and handed it on to select board members.

As they expected, select board chair Ronald Breton postponed action until board members and the town attorney have given the document full review. The proposed agreement is tentatively on the July 18 select board agenda.

In summary, it says the town and the companies will work cooperatively on an expansion of China’s broadband service, starting with offering service to houses that currently are unserved or underserved (have no broadband connection, or have service that is slow, unreliable or otherwise unsatisfactory).

Total project cost is estimated at around $1.2 million. China will be asked to contribute $370,000, $100,000 up front and the remainder over nine years.

Direct Communications and UniTel will match the town amount; other funds, especially a state grant aimed at underserved and unserved areas, will provide the rest of the money. Direct Communications will build and maintain the broadband network, which will belong to the company. Users will be charged locally competitive fees.

If the project fails to receive a state grant, participants in the July 5 discussions said reluctantly that it would not go forward.

Assessor William Van Tuinen attended the July 5 select board meeting to conclude the discussion about property valuations he started at the June 6 meeting (see The Town Line, June 16, p. 3).

Van Tuinen proposed, and select board members unanimously accepted, several changes applicable to different building types, lot locations and specific neighborhoods. He based his recommendations on sales data from the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021, disregarding 2022 price increases, an approach he called first “reasonably conservative” and later in the discussion “very conservative.”

The goal of the changes is to keep China’s land and building valuations close enough to state valuations to avoid penalties. Van Tuinen expects to achieve this goal; and, he said, being conservative means that if property prices start falling, China should be able to avoid or minimize downward valuation adjustments.

In other business July 5, Town Manager Rebecca Hapgood shared a handout showing that China has received $454,887.08 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. Voters at the June 14 town business meeting approved uses for $132,200, leaving a balance of $322,687.08.

One of CBC Chairman Robert O’Connor’s suggestions is that China’s $370,000 contribution to broadband expansion come partly from ARPA money.

Breton, responding to a complaint from a resident, said he intends to pursue a new town ordinance that would limit hours for fireworks. State law allows them from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. on weekends, he said.

Breton agreed with both concerns the resident expressed: fireworks in general are hard on veterans and other people with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and late-night fireworks are hard on people who have to go to work the next morning.

Hapgood said she will look for ordinances from other Maine towns as possible models.

The manager encouraged select board members to volunteer for China Community Days activities. The annual celebration, scheduled for Aug. 5 through Aug. 8 this year, is a chance for officials to meet their constituents informally, she said.

Hapgood again reminded those present that nomination papers for local elective office will be available at the town office Aug. 1. On Nov. 8, China voters will choose three select board members, three planning board members, four members of the budget committee and one representative to the Regional School Unit #16 board of directors.

The next regular China select board meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday, July 18, in the town office meeting room.

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.”

China broadband committee continues talks with Unitel, Direct Communications

by Mary Grow

At their May 4 meeting, China Broadband Committee (CBC) members continued discussion of working with Unitel and Direct Communications to bring expanded broadband service to China residents. CBC Chairman Robert O’Connor planned to present an interim report to China Select Board members at their May 9 meeting.

As at their previous joint discussion April 6 (see The Town Line, April 14, p. 3), everyone was enthusiastic about a cooperative endeavor – and how to pay for what CBC members envision remained a problem.

After voters defeated a request to borrow money through a bond in November 2021, CBC members have been determined to develop a plan that would not require financial support from taxpayers. They expect a combination of grants, user fees and other to-be-explored sources to cover costs.

CBC member Jamie Pitney summarized the committee’s relationship with Unitel: “We contacted all these people [from other broadband and telecommunications companies, including those already serving China residents] and the most promising are sitting right here.”

Michael Akers, Unitel’s Director of Network Operations, said he and Lead Communications Technician Scott Turgeon toured about half of China’s roads and confirmed and expanded information collected by last summer’s survey by Hawkeye Connections.

Notably, they found areas on main roads and camp roads where new facilities would be needed. The necessary construction would be “fairly straightforward,” Akers said, parts of it easy and parts hard.

In sum, the Unitel experts were “not supersurprised” by their findings. They concurred with Hawkeye’s cost estimate of around $6.5 million for work China would need.

They also agreed that under current guidelines and definitions for federal and state broadband grants, China could expect about $850,000, leaving a substantial amount needed from other sources.

Unitel and Direct Communications would contribute, amounts unknown. And, several people mentioned in discussion, grant guidelines will not be final until the fall of 2022 and might change to China’s advantage.

Another possible plan would be to expand China broadband incrementally over several years, starting with service to currently unserved and underserved areas.

The group agreed that CBC members should encourage China residents to do repeated speed tests on their current broadband service. Demonstrations of limited service should help show the need for change. Direct Communications, based in the small town of Rockland, Idaho, specializes in providing rural towns with broadband service. Unitel, based in Unity, Maine, is now a member of Direct Communications. Unitel’s Director of Internal/External Support, Jayne Sullivan, and Akers said they will forward a description of the local financial situation to Idaho.

Pitney asked James Dougherty, from consultant Mission Broadband, to draft a work plan for the CBC based on the May 4 discussion. After discussion of how much time would be needed, the next CBC meeting was scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday, May 25, in the portable building behind the China town office.

China Broadband Committee (CBC) members enthused about new expansion possibility

by Mary Grow

CHINA, ME — China Broadband Committee (CBC) members are enthusiastic about a new possibility for expanding internet service in China, and so are officials at the possible providers, the Unity-based telephone and communications company Unitel.

However, both parties emphasized during an April 6 discussion that nothing is guaranteed, and that financing is likely to remain a challenge.

They plan to meet together again at 4 p.m. Wednesday, May 4, in the former portable classroom behind the China town office.

Unitel was acquired in March by a company called Direct Communications, based in Rockland, Idaho. The web says Rockland had a population of 246 in 2019 and is currently estimated to have 277 residents.

Unitel’s Director of Internal/External Support, Jayne Sullivan, told CBC members that Direct Communications is a third-generation family-owned business, similar to Unitel, which was founded in 1902. Recently, she said, Direct Communications has been buying small companies like Unitel all over the country and helping them expand their broadband offerings.

Sullivan said Unitel officials welcome backing from Direct Communications. Unitel’s first fiber was installed in 2015, Director of Network Operations Michael Akers said.

Unitel and Direct Communications are working with other area towns. Some, like China, are beginning discussion, while some are drawing close to agreements. Akers said nine other towns are ahead of China.

Competition would not necessarily delay work in China if the town and the company reached an agreement and China officials and voters endorsed it. “We’re pretty nimble; we get a lot done quickly – sometimes,” Akers said with a smile.

Consensus was that the first step is for Akers and/or Lead Communications Technician Scott Turgeon, who also attended the April 6 meeting, to survey China to see what infrastructure is available and what is needed. Planning the survey involved discussion about ground-clearance requirements for wires on utility poles.

The new information, combined with results of the Hawkeye Connections survey in the summer of 2021 and other information CBC members have collected, will lead to a cost estimate. Akers intends to forward Hawkeye’s information to Direct Communications engineers in Idaho for analysis.

Financing was a major discussion topic. CBC members’ goal is to provide service to everyone in town who wants it without asking China taxpayers to pay part of the bill.

Funding options include China Tax Increment Financing (TIF) money (the revised TIF plan allocates $30,000 a year to broadband for the next 10 years); American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and other federal funds sent to the State of Maine, Kennebec County and the Town of China; and grant programs.

Most federal and state programs benefit areas that lack any service, or adequate service, and by many initial definitions of terms like “unserved” and “underserved,” China is considered adequately served. However, John Dougherty from Mission Broadband, the CBC’s consulting firm, said definitions are changing, in ways that might make China more grant-eligible.

Akers said Unitel works with Mission Broadband in other towns; he is pleased to work with them in China. He called Dougherty “the guy for the grants.”

UNITEL to join Direct Communications family

Photo credit: Barta IV, https://www.flickr.com/photos/98640399@N08/9287370881

Direct Communications of Rockland, Idaho, announced that it has acquired Unitel of Unity, Maine. Direct Communications, a family-owned broadband provider, has been assisting customers with their communications needs since 1954.

The heart and soul of Direct Communications lies in the rural areas that they serve. They bring to Unitel a vast knowledge of fiber construction, networking, and the ability to scale quickly to expand their reach.

“We are thrilled to welcome Unitel to the Direct Communications family,” said Owner of Direct Communications, Tim May. “Our company takes ‘family’ very seriously, and we treat our employees and customers as family as well. We feel that Unitel is the perfect fit for us because of the groundwork that has already been laid in their network, and the relationships that have been forged with current customers and communities.”

Direct Communications plans to hit the ground running and get to work expanding fiber optics and working hard to upgrade the network. The front office will remain in Unity, and there will be no hiccups in service as all original employees will stay in place to keep fulfilling the local communications needs.

“We have no intention of slowing down,” said May. “We know that the employees and community members are eager for us to bring faster internet speeds, we intend to do that as quickly as possible.”

China Broadband Committee (CBC) members continue talks to improve service

by Mary Grow

China Broadband Committee (CBC) members continued discussing possible future ways to improve internet service to China residents at an hour-long Feb. 17 meeting.

They plan to meet next at 4 p.m. Wednesday (not the usual Thursday), March 9, in the portable building behind the town office. At that meeting they expect to have another proposal from or discussion with representatives of Spectrum Communications and Consolidated Communications.

In past offers, both companies have offered to extend service at considerable cost to the town. The resulting network would be owned by the respective company, not by the town.

The proposal for which China voters rejected a bond issue last November would have resulted in a town-owned network, an outcome committee members preferred.

Yet another option would be formation of a district with one or more other towns. CBC members have considered it; there are no plans. Committee Chairman Robert O’Connor said he had received an inquiry from a Vassalboro resident, to whom he suggested involving Vassalboro select board members.

CBC members understand that China voters prefer not to have costs come from taxes. A system paid for by users is one option; other possibilities for avoiding or minimizing local shared costs are interesting private investors or using county, state or federal grants.

China does not have the densely-populated area that attracts private investors. Much of the grant money for which regulations have been written is for towns with no internet service; but most China households are served, not necessarily satisfactorily.

Related questions Feb. 17 were whether CBC members want to request funding at the June 1 town business meeting and if so, what for. One suggestion was a household survey to find out exactly what service residents have and what they would like to have.

Selectmen have approved asking voters to appropriate $40,000 for broadband from China’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) fund, $10,000 to continue hiring consultant Mission Broadband for another year and $30,000 to get started on a project if one is approved during the 2022-23 fiscal year.

Consolidated Communications officials: Do not expect an offer to expand internet service

by Mary Grow

Members of China’s Broadband Committee (CBC) heard a presentation from two Consolidated Communications officials at their Jan. 18 meeting. The speakers did not encourage them to expect an offer from the company to expand internet service to town residents.

Consolidated, which used to be Fairpoint Communications, serves some China residents, many fewer than are served by Spectrum, the town’s main internet provider. One estimate CBC members have used is that Spectrum covers about 70 percent of households and Consolidated 20 percent, leaving the remainder with no internet service.

Consolidated representatives Simon Thorne and Sarah Davis explained why China is not near the top of Consolidated’s expansion list.

Company decisions are based on project cost, the number of potential customers, the take rate (how many residents sign up for the service) and the presence or absence of competition, Davis said. When the company goes into or expands in a town, it uses a mix of financing, including grants, private financing the company obtains with the expectation of a profit and local money.

China’s population density is too low to offer enough profit to attract investors.

Rules for broadband expansion grants are a work in progress. So far, most grants are available for towns with no service at all, so China would not be eligible.

And voters’ rejection of the CBC’s request for a bond issue last November casts doubt on local interest in providing funds.

When CBC member Tod Detre suggested the company plans to start with “more profitable areas,” Davis replied, “You nailed it.”

Mention of last November’s bond issue vote led to a spirited discussion. Ronald Breton, chairman of the select board and a guest at the CBC meeting, said emphatically that China is still interested in broadband expansion. He pointed out that after the vote, select board members voted unanimously to continue the CBC.

Janet Preston, the select board member who serves “ex officio” on the CBC, reminded Breton that on the Nov. 2, 2021, ballot, the select board and the budget committee both advised voters to reject the bond issue. She thinks the recommendations were “influential.”

Detre added that before the vote, opponents of the bond issue incorrectly claimed it was unnecessary, because “Consolidated would bring fiber [connections to all houses] in a year or two.” Davis confirmed Consolidated had and has no such intention.

Replying to a question from CBC member Neil Farrington, Davis said Consolidated does have fiber lines in China. But, she said, they are configured for business, and to reconfigure them to serve individual houses would be about as expensive as starting from scratch.

CBC Chairman Robert O’Connor asked if China would be more attractive to investors if the town were to form a utility district with neighboring towns, like Vassalboro and Windsor. Davis said she would find out whether a district might be helpful.

Since Davis was unsure how long it will take to get information, CBC members scheduled two more meetings: 4 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 3, to be canceled if they have no new matters to discuss; and 4 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 17, for continued discussion with Davis and Thorne if information is available by then.

China Broadband Committee (CBC): seven possible sources for expanded service

by Mary Grow

China Broadband Committee (CBC) members have a list of seven possible sources for expanded and improved broadband service to all town residents.

At their Jan. 6 meeting, committee members discussed what they know about the different companies; what additional information they need; what federal and state funding might be available, once distribution rules are developed; and possibilities of combining technologies from more than one company.

To help them collect and analyze the information they need, they agreed to ask again for money from China’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) fund. The draft fund request had two pieces: $10,000 for consultant services and $30,000 to start work. If they are not ready to spend any of the $30,000 in the 2022-23 fiscal year, they expect it to carry forward for future use.

Committee Chairman Robert O’Connor and member Jamie Pitney intended to submit the request to TIF Committee members at the Jan. 10 TIF Committee meeting.

The next CBC meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 18 (not the usual Thursday afternoon). A discussion with representatives of Consolidated Communications, one of the seven potential providers, is tentatively on the agenda.