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Brownies and Broadband draws small audience: but lively discussion

by Mary Grow

The China Broadband Committee’s (CBC) second public informational session, held July 29 and publicized as Brownies and Broadband, drew a small audience and a lively discussion, just like the first one (see The Town Line, July 15, p. 3).

There were indeed brownies, and other desserts, and CBC Chairman Robert O’Connor brought samples of different internet signal carriers, old-fashioned wire that uses electricity to transmit and fiberoptic cable that, he explained, uses light instead.

O’Connor’s presentation covered the main CBC messages. The committee plan, if voters approve it, will provide expanded, faster, more reliable and future-proof service. The infrastructure will be owned by the town and operated and maintained by Axiom Technologies (or a successor company) under contract with the town. Costs will be paid by subscribers, not by town taxpayers.

The first questions came from Eric Austin, who was concerned about the relationship of internet with cable television, telephone and other services. O’Connor and John Dougherty, vice-president of consultants Mission Broadband, replied that internet subscribers could use Axiom’s “pipe” (Dougherty’s term) to connect to other services, but if they are content with their current arrangements, they would not need to.

Austin said in that case, there could be competing internet providers as well. Axiom President Mark Ouellette said in theory, yes; in practice, the customer base in China is not large enough to attract other companies.

Axiom, based in Machias, is establishing operations in other small Maine communities. Earlier in July Searsport voters, at a special town meeting, approved contracting with Axiom. Ouellette listed other customers and potential customers, including Somerville, Washington, Georgetown, Southport and Monhegan Island.

Former Waterville resident Bradford Sherwood, who now lives in South China, asked about China’s connection to the global network. Dougherty said the CBC plan includes constructing a small building near the middle of town where local fiberoptic cables will converge; from there, China’s internet will connect to the rest of the world, probably via southern Maine.

Richard Morse, also from South China, questioned whether residents will save money with a different internet system, and objected strongly to a town-owned system.
Governments are usually considerably less competent than private companies, Morse said. No one disagreed; but Dougherty pointed out that China officials would not run the company, but would contract with Axiom (or a similar company) to use private expertise.

The draft contract between Axiom and the town includes a clause allowing town officials to end the contract, at three-year intervals, if they are not satisfied.

Dougherty and Ouellette assured audience members that every telephone pole in China, on public and private roads, will have fiberoptic cable, so that nearby householders can connect if they choose. Ouellette added that his company has experience with wireless internet as well as fiberoptic, and will work with individual homeowners as needed.

Sherwood asked if underground lines were being considered. No, Dougherty replied – burying utility lines in Maine is expensive, especially with so much granite.

The Brownies and Broadband meeting was followed by an hour-long CBC meeting at which members discussed their planned Aug. 2 presentation to China selectmen.

By the next day, they had postponed the presentation, instead inviting selectmen to the next committee meeting, scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 5.

They further scheduled a special committee meeting for 4:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 2, to try to finish cost estimates for selectmen to review. At that meeting, information was still lacking, and they had learned selectmen cannot join them Aug. 5.

O’Connor and committee member Neil Farrington spoke briefly at the Aug. 2 selectboard meeting and promised more information as soon as possible. They hope to have it collected and organized by their Aug. 5 meeting and to speak at the Aug. 16 selectmen’s meeting.

CBC information is available on the committee website, chinabroadband.net.

China Broadband Committee (CBC) members seek ways to publicize progress

by Mary Grow

China Broadband Committee (CBC) members spent their July 15 meeting planning more ways to publicize their progress as they seek expanded and improved broadband service for town residents.

The results include two more meetings: the committee will meet virtually at 5 p.m. Thursday, July 22, primarily to work on a video presentation that would give China residents a quick overview of the project; and a second public meeting is scheduled.

The public meeting is called “Brownies and Broadband” – there might be more varied refreshments, but committee members liked the alliterative title – and is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 29, at China Middle School.

Committee members planned other opportunities for people to learn about their work.

CBC Chairman Robert O’Connor is to present a report on the 2021 loon count at the China Lake Association’s annual meeting, scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Saturday, July 31. He will include a broadband update.

Someone representing CBC will offer information at the ballfields during the Saturday afternoon, Aug. 7, part of China Community Days. Neil Farrington, a committee member and head of the Saturday afternoon part of the annual celebration, says he expects up to a dozen other organizations will be represented.

After the July 15 meeting, committee member Tod Detre completed the new CBC website, htpps://chinabroadband.net. By July 16 it already contained additional information about the July 15 meeting. The town website, www.china.govoffice.com, has a link to the broadband website under the Broadband Committee (which is under Officials, Boards & Committees).

Having gained a July 14 recommendation from the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Committee for $10,000 in TIF funds for planning, CBC members O’Connor and Jamie Pitney asked for the appropriation at the July 19 China selectmen’s meeting, where another complication cropped up.

The money is be used to have Hawkeye Fiber Optics (also called Hawkeye Connections), of Poland, Maine, survey existing broadband infrastructure in town to help determine the cost of expanded service.

Committee members have a draft contract ready that authorizes payment of the $10,000 when the work is finished and a report submitted. However, Town Manager Becky Hapgood, who was not at the selectmen’s meeting, had noted the need for a second condition.

Funding for broadband is authorized in the revised TIF program (the Second Amendment) that voters approved June 8, and the state has not approved the revised program. Therefore TIF money cannot assist with broadband expansion until the appropriate official in the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) signs off.

Hapgood advised making payment conditional on DECD approval. After discussion, selectmen voted 4-1 to add the condition and to authorize Hapgood to sign the contract for the survey after board members re-review the final version.

The dissenter was Selectman Wayne Chadwick. Chadwick pointed out that the CBC has already received $10,000 (to pay consultants Mission Broadband) and was now asking for another $10,000, before selectmen had even decided whether to ask voters to approve the project.

Pitney explained that the survey was a useful step toward asking selectmen to ask voters to approve a construction bond issue on Nov. 2, because it will provide more accurate cost estimates than the committee has now.

When O’Connor offered selectmen posters advertising the July 29 Brownies and Broadband program, Selectboard Chairman Ronald Breton reminded him that CBC members needed to offer at least three kinds of brownies: regular ones with nuts, and, to allow for possible allergies, some without nuts and some without chocolate.

CHINA: Only half dozen attend first broadband committee information meeting

by Mary Grow

Only half a dozen residents came in person to the China Broadband Committee’s (CBC) first public informational meeting July 11, with three or four more watching virtually; but discussion was lively and varied during and after the committee’s slideshow.

The purpose of the meeting was twofold: to explain what the committee, created by China selectmen in 2017, is doing and plans to do, and to enlist support for the expanded and improved broadband service committee members hope to offer.

Sharing the explanations, committee members said their goal is to provide affordable, reliable, high-speed internet to every China householder who wants it. They talked about the need for adequate bandwidth so students can do schoolwork while parents manage their office work from home, without computers slowing.

A main advantage of the plan, in committee members’ opinions, is that the town will own the fiber network. The committee has worked for months with Mark Ouellette, President of Machias-based Axiom Technologies, and plans to contract with his company to run the system.

Replying to questions from resident Brent Chesley, Ouellette said his standard contracts run for 10 to 15 years, with “kick-out clauses” at three-year intervals in case China officials become dissatisfied. Axiom will be the internet service provider, will be responsible for all needed repairs and will hire a local service technician to provide speedy customer service.

To make the system work, a new fiberoptic network needs to be built throughout the town. The first steps in building the network are surveying existing infrastructure, notably telephone poles, and obtaining construction money.

CBC members are ready to contract with Hawkeye Connections, based in Poland, Maine, to do the survey. The cost is estimated at $10,000. So far, an application for a state planning grant has failed, and China selectmen have postponed action on using town funds to their July 19 meeting.

Until the survey is done, the construction cost is a rough estimate: $5 to $6 million. Committee members intend to ask selectmen to ask voters to approve a bond issue on Nov. 2 to cover the cost – or maybe only part, if the CBC can get one or more construction grants, committee member Jamie Pitney suggested.

Grants are definitely a possibility, ex officio committee member and Selectman Janet Preston said, because “Broadband is the buzzword right now, with federal and state governments.”

Ouellette agreed. Municipally-owned broadband is “a movement” in Maine, he said, partly because of the pandemic increasing the need for reliable service and partly because many residents are tired of the inadequacies of their commercial providers.

Another point committee members made repeatedly is that their plan will not increase taxes. User fees will cover Axiom’s costs and profit and the bond repayment. After the first two years, fees will generate revenue for the town, which will increase when the bond is fully repaid (presumably after 20 years).

The present plan is for tiered levels of service at different prices. Ouellette and committee members have repeatedly said they hope to price the lowest tier, 50 over 50 (50 megabits download and 50 megabits upload), at around $55 a month and the highest tier, gig over gig (one gigabit down and one gigabit up), at no more than $200 a month.

The construction phase is expected to last up to two years and to include free connections and hook-ups for all immediate subscribers. People who build a new house or decide they want broadband later are likely to be charged to connect; but grants, broadband revenue or some other source might control costs.

The system will have excess capacity to accommodate growth, Ouellette said.

Committee members did not ignore the uncertainties in their projections and plans. One unknown is how many China residents will sign up for Axiom’s service. Revenue projections are based on an initial rate of 35 percent, or 835 households – conservative, committee members said – and a five percent a year increase.

Construction costs are another unknown, not only because of lack of information about current facilities, but also, committee members said, because growing interest in broadband expansion could lead to higher materials prices, supply bottlenecks, contractors’ delays or all three.

Committee member Tod Detre pointed out that if voters approve the bond issue on Nov. 2, selectmen can postpone acting if too few residents have signed up, prices have gone too high or other unforeseen difficulties have arisen.

Committee members and audience member Paul Blair, a Winslow native who now lives in Silicon Valley and vacations on Three Mile Pond, hope all will go smoothly. They listed some of the benefits if China had one of the best broadband systems in the state, including offering gig over gig service:

Part-time residents like Blair could spend more time – and money – in town, because they could work from their vacation homes, visit their doctors via telemedicine and generally be geographically more independent.
Full-time residents, especially those currently poorly served or not served at all, would have faster, more reliable internet for work, education, socializing, entertainment and other on-line activities.
New businesses, especially high-tech businesses, might consider locating in China, making the CBC plan “an investment to develop the community,” Pitney said – but not to turn China into a city, Blair and fellow audience member Jeanne Marquis added.

The July 11 community meeting was recorded and is available for viewing on the town website, www.china.govoffice.com, under the Live Stream heading on the left side. The Live Stream page includes lists of previous and future meetings.

Detre has the assignment of developing a CBC website on which information can be posted between meetings. He invites anyone with website experience who would like to help to get in touch with him at tod@tod.net.

CBC members scheduled their next virtual committee meeting for 5 p.m. Thursday, July 15. One topic on the agenda will be planning future informational events.

China Broadband Committee members to ask for TIF funding

by Mary Grow

China Broadband Committee (CBC) members voted unanimously at their June 10 meeting to ask for Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds to contract with Mission Broadband, the Bangor-based consulting firm that has worked with them for months, now that China voters have approved the updated TIF plan.

The revised TIF document China voters approved at the June 8 town business meeting includes promoting broadband as a permissible use of TIF funds.

CBC members’ request goes through two steps. First, they present it to the TIF Committee, scheduled to meet Monday evening, June 14.

Assuming approval there, they ask China selectmen, meeting Monday evening, June 21, to disburse the funds.

The proposed contract requests $10,000 for Mission Broadband, in return for the company’s help in negotiations with “vendor(s) to locate or enhance their broadband business in the Town of China.” There is an option for extra duties if town officials agree, for extra money; and the town will be billed for “significant miscellaneous expenses,” if there are any.

Mission Broadband Vice-President John Dougherty and Network Engineer Mark Van Loan have worked with CBC members and Mark Ouellette, President of Machias-based Axiom Technologies, as they develop plans for Axiom to become China’s internet provider.

Their proposal is to have the town own the internet infrastructure, built with money obtained through a bond, and Axiom (or, later, another company, should town officials find Axiom unsatisfactory) operate it. Having the town issue a bond in November requires selectmen to put the question on a Nov. 2 local ballot and voters to approve it.

The anticipated construction cost for the new network determines the amount to be borrowed. The town has applied for a state planning grant to help establish the cost; CBC members expect to hear by the end of June if the application is successful.

Van Loan and Ouellette have worked together to develop a model that makes the plan financially workable at a reasonable fee for users. Their model does not include additional federal or state grants, possibilities committee members discussed June 10.

They also discussed ways to inform town officials and residents about the proposal. They had started with a brief survey at the polls June 8.

The small sample of replies showed dissatisfaction with current broadband service and support for an alternative. It also showed some residents unaware that there was an alternative in the works.

At the next committee meeting, scheduled for 4:30 p.m., Thursday, June 17, members intend to work on an informational handout and to continue discussion of ways to distribute it.

China Broadband Committee members return to grant application

by Mary Grow

At their June 3 meeting, China Broadband Committee (CBC) members returned to their application for a ConnectMe planning grant for expanded and improved broadband service. They also reviewed a more definite – but still with uncertainties – financial model for their project (see the June 3 issue of The Town Line, p. 3).

The ConnectMe grant was filed May 27. State officials replied, not just to the CBC but to all applicants, with a request for more information on two topics, with a deadline of noon on Friday, June 4.

CBC Chairman Robert O’Connor put the application on the CBC’s document-sharing site so members could work on it and offered to call ConnectMe the morning of June 4 to clarify what was needed. A revised application was filed and acknowledged; committee members expect to hear before the end of June whether China will receive $7,500 (to be matched by $2,500 in town funds).

The first major planning issue is a survey of telephone poles, unserved houses and other factors that will affect the cost of building new broadband infrastructure. CBC members intend to have Hawkeye Connections, Inc., based in Poland, Maine, do the survey (and if the plan comes to fruition, the construction).

Consultant Mark Van Loan, of Bangor-based Mission Broadband, said he and Mark Ouellette, President of Axiom Technologies, of Machias, developed the revised financial model. Like prior ones, it is based on estimated construction costs.

If the construction costs are close to accurate, the model sees China borrowing $4.8 million for 20 years to build out the system. Assuming 35 percent of year-round residents and 40 percent of seasonal residents sign up initially, a program offering four levels of service could have a $55 monthly fee for the lowest tier.

The plan would additionally provide two levels of business service. Ouellette, whose company is the CBC’s choice for providing broadband, expects most small businesses would be able to sign up for the less expensive residential service.

The most expensive tier, at $200 a month, offers gig over gig (one gigabit upload, one gigabit download) for households with a lot of devices and/or users. Ouellette thinks the offering is underpriced.

“Most of the world – not Maine, the world – can’t get a gig,” he said.

If the model’s assumptions are close to accurate and the proposed fee schedule is adopted, broadband service would run a deficit for not more than the first three years. After that, it would return an annual profit to the town over the life of the bond. Once the bond was paid off, the town’s share of the revenue would be larger.

Ouellette is confident that when residents start using Axiom, their satisfaction will lead to more customers and increasing revenue. The model does not include grant money, which committee members think is a definite possibility beyond the planning stage.

The model builds in a 25 percent profit for Axiom – but, Ouellette said, the company will be taking all the risks of providing and maintaining broadband service, and a bad year with hurricanes and ice storms taking down lines and poles would be expensive.

CBC members accepted the model, by consensus, as their working document.

They scheduled their next meeting for 4:30 p.m. Thursday, June 10. By then they should know whether China town meeting voters approved the revised Tax Increment Financing (TIF) plan, which includes funding for some aspects of broadband service.

Committee urges people to take computer speed test

ConnectMe officials and China Broadband Committee members urge people using computers to take the speed test, to see how much service they have. Speed test results help define areas that do not have adequate broadband service by state or federal definitions. The web addresses for taking speed tests are https://www.mainebroadbandcoalition.org/ or https://www.mainebroadbandcoalition.org/speed-test-info.

The site provides instructions and offers a link to a map showing area test results. China has numerous red dots indicating limited service.

China broadband committee members review models of potential offerings, prices

by Mary Grow

China Broadband Committee (CBC) members reviewed models for potential broadband offerings and prices for customers at their May 26 meeting and asked for more definite information, if possible, to share with residents.

They also worked on an application for a Phase II planning grant from ConnectMe to help them get the information.

And they talked briefly about Spectrum Community Solutions, the company currently providing internet service to an estimated 70 percent of China households.

The CBC plan requires enough income from broadband users to repay a proposed bond that would fund costs of new internet infrastructure; to pay for ongoing internet service; and to provide a profit for the company that provides the service. Committee members do not want to suggest an increase in local taxes to support the project.

The currently proposed service provider is Machias-based Axiom Technologies. Company President Mark Ouellette participated in the May 26 discussion, as he has in previous meetings.

Consultants Mark Van Loan and John Dougherty, of Mission Broadband, had developed models showing what levels of service could be offered at what prices to make enough money to cover expected costs.

They were still dealing with the problems that have plagued earlier predictive efforts: until experts survey the town to see how many new poles and how many miles of cable are needed, construction costs are estimates; and until Axiom finds out how many customers want their service – the “take rate” – income is an estimate.

The goal is a maximum monthly charge of $50 for the lowest tier of service. That low a price is achievable in Van Loan and Dougherty’s models, assuming a high enough take rate.

The models propose a 15 percent discount for seasonal residents. One version would offer four service levels, the top – and most expensive — one named the Tod Tier in honor of committee member and self-described geek Tod Detre. Detre doubts many other residents would need the Tod Tier.

CBC members made no decision on a plan. They agreed they need to have one before they begin making presentations to enlist residents to sign up.

The ConnectMe grant application was due by midnight May 27. Ouellette, who had assisted another town with the same application, offered advice; Selectboard Chairman Ronald Breton and Town Manager Becky Hapgood called in their approval; and committee members planned to finish the grant during the day May 27.

They succeeded. CBC Chairman Robert O’Connor reported that an application for $7,500, to be supplemented by a $2,500 local match (from contingency funds, Hapgood suggested during the meeting), was emailed to ConnectMe before the deadline.

If ConnectMe awards a grant to China, the money will be used to pay Hawkeye Connections, Inc., fiber optic specialists based in Poland, Maine, to do an engineering review of “roads, premises, and telephone poles” that will define construction costs more accurately and improve cost estimates.

On the third topic, O’Connor told the rest of the committee he had received a communication from Spectrum, the most recent of several sent as CBC discussions proceed. Spectrum was one of three applicants to provide enhanced broadband service. After reviewing all three proposals early in 2021, CBC members chose to negotiate with Axiom.

O’Connor’s belief is that Spectrum officials are willing to submit proposals to match each improvement Axiom offers; but, he pointed out, they have not taken any action. He and Detre are among those saying that Spectrum cannot meet Axiom’s service level with its existing equipment.

The meeting ended with consensus that Van Loan, in consultation with Ouellette, would continue to work toward a more definite model, and that the committee would meet again at 4:30 p.m., Thursday, June 3.

CHINA: Broadband costs big unknown at this point

by Mary Grow

After two more hours April 27 revising their explanatory document for China Community Broadband, China Broadband Committee (CBC) members presented it to the selectboard at a joint virtual meeting April 29.

The ensuing two-hour discussion focused on costs and on what service customers could expect.

Costs are a big unknown at this point, presenters said. The plan includes estimates, but they are only estimates, for two main reasons:

  • Costs for construction materials are likely to change, up or down or both, by the time work starts, and the amount of construction work – for example, the number of new poles needed – is unknown until contracts are signed.
  • The number of users who sign up for the new service, the “take rate,” determines monthly income, which needs to cover repayment of the proposed construction bond plus operating costs. CBC consultants have prepared scenarios based on different take rates without knowing which is closest to accurate.

Consultants Mark Van Loan and John Dougherty, of Mission Broadband, had three tables showing financial results with three different take rates, from 1,005 to 2,270 customers, resulting in three different fees per household, from around $85 per month to around $50 per month. These prices will vary with costs and with whether and by how much seasonal residents are billed differently from year-round residents.

Mark Ouellette, President of Machias-based Axiom Technologies, with whom CBC members are negotiating to provide service, said he usually gets high take rates as his company moves into new towns, including towns like China with existing providers.

In China, CBC members estimate that Spectrum Community Solutions serves about two-thirds of households; Consolidated Communications serves about 20 percent; and about five percent have no internet connection.

Another factor influencing costs to customers, CBC member Tod Detre said, is that the committee’s current plan is to offer only one level of service, which he calls gig over gig. The phrase means one gigabit per second can be uploaded to the net and one gigabit per second can be downloaded.

Selectman Wayne Chadwick doubted most people need that fast service. Detre agreed, and said the committee plan could be amended to offer as options lower service levels at lower monthly fees, if China residents prefer.

Assuming selectmen authorize CBC members to continue, a next step is to start a comprehensive community outreach program to determine how many households want what level of service.

Prompt sign-ups would provide useful information, but committee members and consultants realize that some residents will wait to see whether selectmen present the construction bond at the November 2 elections and voters approve it.

Service would be established if a minimum number of users sign up. Another issue concerning selectmen was whether people who sign up later would be charged a fee. Again, the answer is to be determined; one possibility would be to schedule future open enrollment windows during which fees could be lowered or eliminated because multiple houses would be connected while trucks and workers were in town.

Town Manager Becky Hapgood suggested selectmen discuss whether to continue to support the CBC’s work at their May 10 meeting. If they do support the committee, next steps include:

  • The community outreach program, envisioned as including email, social media, meetings, printed materials and probably other methods;
  • At the June 8 town business meeting, voter action on the Second Amendment to China’s Tax Increment Financing document, which adds broadband service to approvable TIF projects and provides funding to continue working with Mission Broadband;
  • Selectmen’s request for authorization to issue a bond and a Nov. 2 voter decision on the bond.

The amount of the bond is undetermined because construction costs are undetermined. Committee members suggest an “up to” figure – currently estimated at $6.5 million – so selectmen are not obligated to borrow more than is needed.

When Chadwick asked Ouellette why Axiom didn’t borrow the money, Ouellette replied that towns get a much lower interest rate than private companies.

The CBC plan would have Axiom build the fiber optic infrastructure, using a contractor, provide service, take care of billing and maintain the system. The town would own the system and could change providers should Axiom prove unsatisfactory.

A contract between Axiom and town officials, to be signed if the bond issue is approved and nothing has impaired the company’s relationship with the town, would spell out details selectmen asked about, like the contract length, construction schedule, how often Axiom would pay China its share of revenue and whether the local on-call repair person would work for Axiom or for China.

The CBC’s goal is to provide a town-owned broadband system offering all residents high-quality service that is easy to update as technology changes, at a price that will cover costs and, after the bond is paid off, generate extra revenue.

The document CBC members presented to selectmen April 29, titled “Community Broadband Project – Declaration of Intent” is posted under the Broadband Committee in the list of officials, boards and committee on the China website, www.china.govoffice.com.

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, www.china.govoffice.com.

China Broadband Committee rearranges future schedule

by Mary Grow

With four of China’s five selectmen joining their April 1 virtual meeting, China Broadband Committee (CBC) members rearranged their future schedule and discussed what might be good news.

Committee members had been scheduled to make a presentation at the April 26 selectboard meeting. Instead, they added a Thursday, April 29, meeting to their schedule, with selectboard members specifically invited to join the live stream.

The CBC was already scheduled to meet at 7 p.m., April 8, April 15 and April 22. Selectmen – and interested residents – are welcome to watch those meetings also, via the Live Stream tab at the lower left of the town website, china.govoffice.com.

The maybe good news came to CBC Chairman Robert O’Connor in an email from Peggy Schaffer, Director of the ConnectMaine Authority. She notified him that the 2021 American Recovery Act will provide $23 million in broadband funding to Kennebec County, with China’s share expected to be $430,000.

Schaffer’s email said the United States Treasury has not issued guidelines for using the funds. CBC members therefore do not know how much, if any, money might be applicable to China’s project.

CBC members looked into an earlier grant that provided funds only for unserved and underserved areas. Most China residents have access to broadband service at some level. At the April 1 meeting, committee member Jamie Pitney cited two estimates of households with no access, out of 2,100 to 2,300 properties: 83, according to ConnectMaine, or 140, according to current provider Spectrum Community Solutions.

Schaffer suggested the CBC prepare an informational presentation to the Kennebec County Commissioners.

CBC members spent most of the April 1 meeting repeating previous discussions for the benefit of selectboard members, with O’Connor, Tod Detre and Jamie Pitney sharing their expertise.

They said China needs better broadband service than Spectrum can provide with its current equipment and technology. A faster, more reliable and more flexible system would expand opportunities for residents, including adults working from home, children attending school remotely and everyone looking for entertainment and communication; and it would give China an advantage in attracting new, high-tech businesses.

They prefer a model that would have the town own the infrastructure and contract out building it, maintaining it and providing service. Under that model, should a service provider be unsatisfactory, town officials could seek a different one.

After reviewing proposals from Spectrum and two other companies, CBC members are negotiating with Axiom Technologies, of Machias, with assistance from consultants Mark Van Loan and James Dougherty of Portland-based Mission Broadband.

They are not ready to make a recommendation to the selectboard. They have no firm cost estimates; no consensus on covering costs (a bond issue has been discussed); and no agreed-upon definition of services to be provided.

Their present position is that the contractor(s) would do the billing and would maintain the town-owned infrastructure. After Selectman Wayne Chadwick asked what if something like the 1998 ice storm brought down lines all over town, CBC members thanked him for the reminder and planned to include a provision ensuring the contractor handled disasters as well as routine repairs.

Chadwick remained skeptical about town involvement. Everything government does is “top-heavy and inefficient,” he said; he would prefer a private contractor take on all aspects of the service.

CBC members agreed they will present updates at selectmen’s meetings, either by Selectman Janet Preston, the board’s non-voting representative on the CBC, or by O’Connor. Should they get new information, like Schaffer’s email, between meetings, they will share that, too.

China selectmen ask for more info from broadband committee

by Mary Grow

Ronald Breton, Chairman of the China Selectboard, requested and received time on the China Broadband Committee’s March 25 agenda. In return, CBC members ended their meeting by drafting an email request for time on the selectboard’s April 26 agenda.

Breton complained that CBC members are failing to keep him and the rest of the selectboard informed about their activities. What he knows, he reads in The Town Line, he said; and the articles make it sound as though the committee is trying to “sell” a broadband plan to townspeople before consulting the selectboard.

If people are convinced that broadband is “good and great,” and selectboard members find otherwise, he fears “They’ll get their asses kicked” by indignant residents.

Speaking as a selectman, he expressed two concerns: he does not want taxes to increase, and he does not want any broadband system to impose more work, like collecting bills or “running a utility,” on town office staff.

He also questioned the CBC proposal to prepare a letter of intent to continue negotiations with Axiom Technologies, of Machias (see The Town Line, March 25). Breton believes only selectmen, not members of committees appointed by the selectboard, have authority to sign letters of intent.

Committee member Jamie Pitney, who had drafted a nine-point outline of a document the committee could flesh out and present to Axiom president Mark Ouellette, agreed with Breton on the authority question. “Letter of intent” is probably incorrect wording, he said; the idea is to give Ouellette something more than a verbal assurance that he is not wasting time negotiating with the CBC.

At their March 18 meeting, CBC members and Ouellette talked about Axiom helping not only to plan broadband service, but also to develop a community outreach program to present information to the selectboard and residents.

After Breton zoomed out of the meeting, committee members further discussed the outreach program. At one point, Tod Detre and Chairman Robert O’Connor were talking about what residents might want for broadband service: would 25 up and 25 down be enough, or would people insist on at least 100 over 100, or maybe a gig over 100, or gig over gig?

“Can you imagine this discussion in a community meeting?” Pitney protested. “You’ll lose two-thirds of the people in the first 10 minutes.”

Members talked for more than an hour about different facets of providing broadband service, including the option of starting with a partial build-out (for $2 to $3.5 million) instead of going town-wide in one swoop (for $6 million or more); the possibility of cooperating with other central Maine towns, and what legal structures might be needed to do so; and potential grant opportunities.

They ended their two-hour meeting with two decisions: to ask to talk with selectmen on Monday, April 26, and to meet at 7 p.m. each of the first four April Thursdays (April 1, 8, 15 and 22) to prepare for the April 26 meeting.

On April 26, the selectboard is scheduled to hold consecutive public hearings, beginning at 6 p.m., on the Second Amendment to the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) document that governs expenditure of TIF funds and on the warrant for the June 8 annual town business meeting (which includes the TIF amendment).

Breton said he expects the hearings to be short enough so the selectboard meeting will begin about its usual time, 6:30 p.m.