Tag Archive for: broadband

ERIC’S TECH TALK: CBC wants to revolutionize internet access in China, but will it work?

by Eric W. Austin

The views of the author in the following column are not necessarily those of The Town Line newspaper, its staff and board of directors.

On the ballot this November is a question that has the potential to revolutionize internet access for residents of China. The question is also long, at over 200 words, a bit confusing and filled with legalese. As a resident of China, a technophile, and a reporter for The Town Line newspaper, I wanted to understand this initiative, figure out exactly what it’s attempting to accomplish, and try to find out what residents of China think about the future of local internet access.

In order to understand the issue, I attended two of the recent information sessions held by the China Broadband Committee and also sat down with Tod Detre, a member of the committee, who I peppered with questions to clear up any confusions I had.

I also created a post in the Friends of China Facebook group, which has a membership of more than 4,000 people from the town of China and neighboring communities, asking for comments and concerns from residents about the effort. Along with soliciting comments, I included in my post a survey question asking whether residents support the creation of a fiber optic infrastructure for internet access in China. (I should be clear here and point out that the question on the November ballot does not ask whether we should build a fiber optic network in China, only whether the selectboard should move forward with applying for financing to fund the initiative if they find there is sufficient interest to make the project viable. But for my purposes, I wanted to understand people’s thoughts on the goals of the effort and how they felt about their current internet access.)

My Facebook post garnered 86 comments and 141 votes on the survey question. One hundred and twenty people voted in favor of building a fiber optic network in China and 21 people opposed it. (This, of course, was not a scientifically rigorous survey, and the results are obviously skewed toward those who already have some kind of internet access and regularly utilize online platforms like Facebook.)

Before we get into the reasons why people are for or against the idea, let’s first take a look at what exactly the question on the ballot is and some background on what has led up to this moment.

The question before voters in November does not authorize the creation of a fiber optic network in China. It only authorizes the selectboard to begin the process of pursuing the financing that would be required to accomplish that goal – but only if certain conditions are met. So, what are those conditions? The most important condition is one of participation. Since the Broadband Committee’s goal is to pay for the fiber optic network solely through subscriber fees – without raising local taxes – the number of people who sign up for the new service will be the primary determining factor on whether the project moves forward.

If the question is approved by voters, the town will proceed with applying for financing for the initiative, which is projected to have a total estimated cost of about $6.5 million, paid for by a bond in the amount of $5.6 million, with the remainder covered through a combination of “grants, donations and other sources.” As the financing piece of the project proceeds, Axiom, the company the town plans to partner with to provide the internet service, will begin taking pre-registrations for the program. Although the length of this pre-registration period has not been completely nailed down, it would likely last anywhere from six months to a year while the town applies for financing. During this period, residents would have an opportunity to reserve a spot and indicate their interest in the new service with a refundable deposit of $100, which would then be applied toward their first few months’ of service once the program goes live. Because the plan for the initiative is for it to be paid for by subscriber fees rather than any new taxes, it is essential that the project demonstrates sufficient interest from residents before any work is done or financing acquired.

With approximately 2,300 structures, or households, that could potentially be connected to the service in China, the Broadband Committee estimates that at least 834 participants – or about 36 percent – would need to enroll in the program for it to pay for itself. Any number above this would create surplus revenue for the town, which could be used to pay off the bond sooner, lower taxes, reduce subscriber fees or for other purposes designated by the selectboard. If this number is not reached during the pre-registration period, the project would not proceed.

One of the problems this initiative is meant to alleviate is the cost of installing internet for residents who may not have sufficient internet access currently because bringing high speed cable to their house is cost prohibitive. The Broadband Committee, based on surveys they have conducted over the last several years, estimates that about 70 percent of residents currently have cable internet. The remaining 30 percent have lower speed DSL service or no service at all.

For this reason, for those who place a deposit during the initial signup period, there would be no installation cost to the resident, no matter where they live, including those who have found such installation too expensive in the past. (The lone exception to this guarantee would be residents who do not have local utility poles providing service to their homes. In those rare instances, the fiber optic cable would need to be buried underground and may incur an additional expense.) After the initial pre-registration period ends, this promise of free installation would no longer be guaranteed, although Axiom and the Broadband Committee have talked about holding rolling enrollment periods in the future which could help reduce the installation costs for new enrollees after the initial pre-registration period is over.

What are the benefits of the proposed fiber optic infrastructure over the cable broadband or DSL service that most residents have currently? Speed and reliability are the most obvious benefits. Unlike the copper cable used currently for cable internet, which transmits data via electrical pulses, fiber optic cable transmits data using pulses of light through fine glass fibers and does not run into the same limitations as its copper counterpart. The speed at which data can be transmitted via fiber optic cable is primarily limited by the hardware at either end of the connection rather than the cable itself. Currently, internet service travels out from the servers of your internet provider as a digital signal via fiber optic cable, but then is converted to an analogue signal as it is passed on to legacy parts of the network that do not have fiber optics installed. This process of conversion slows down the signal by the time it arrives at your house. As service providers expand their fiber optic networks and replace more of the legacy copper wire with fiber optics, the speed we experience as consumers will increase, but it is still limited by the slowest point along the network.

The proposed fiber optic network would eliminate this bottleneck by installing fiber optic cable from each house in China back to an originating server with no conversion necessary in between.

Both copper and fiber optic cable suffer from something called “attenuation,” which is a degradation of the strength of the signal as it travels further from its source. The copper cables we currently use have a maximum length of 100 meters before they must be fed through a power source to amplify their signal. In contrast, fiber optic cables can run for up to 24 miles before any significant weakening of the signal starts to become a problem. Moving from copper cable to fiber optics would virtually eliminate problems from signal degradation.

Another downside to the present infrastructure is that each of those signal conversion or amplification boxes require power to do their job. This means that when the power goes out, it shuts off the internet because these boxes along the route will no longer function to push the signal along. The infrastructure proposed by the China Broadband Committee would solve this problem by installing fiber optics along the entire signal route leading back to a central hub station, which would be located in the town of China and powered by a propane generator that will automatically kick on when the power goes out. With the proposed system, as long as you have a generator at your house, your internet should continue to work – even during a localized power outage.

There’s an additional benefit to the proposed fiber optic network that residents would notice immediately. The current cable internet that most of us use is a shared service. When more people are using the service, everyone’s speed decreases. Most of us know that the internet is slower at 5 o’clock in the afternoon than it is at 3 in the morning. The proposed fiber optic network is different however. Inside the fiber optic cable are hundreds of individual glass strands that lead back to the network source. A separate internet signal can ride on each of these strands without interfering with the others. Hawkeye Connections, the proposed contractor for the physical infrastructure part of the project, would install cable with enough individual strands so that every house along its path could be connected via a different strand within the cable. This means that no one would be sharing a signal with anyone else and internet slowdown and speed fluctuations during peak usage should become a thing of the past.

Another change proposed by the CBC initiative would be to equalize upload and download speeds. Presently, download speeds are generally higher than upload speeds, which is a convention in the industry. This is a legacy of the cable TV networks from which they evolved. Cable TV is primarily a one-way street datawise. The video information is sent from the cable provider to your home and displayed on your TV. Very little data is sent the other way, from your home back to the cable provider. This was true of most data streams in the early days of the internet as well. We downloaded pictures, videos and webpages. Nearly all the data was traveling in one direction. But this is changing. We now have Zoom meetings, smart houses and interactive TVs. We upload more information than we used to, which means upload speed is more important than ever. This trend is likely to continue in the years ahead as more of our lives become connected to the internet. The internet service proposed by the Broadband Committee and Axiom, the company contracted to provide the service, would equalize upload and download speeds. For example, the first tier of the service would offer speeds of 50 megabits up and 50 megabits down. This, combined with the other benefits outlined above, should make Zoom meetings much more bearable.

What about costs for the consumer? The first level service tier would offer speeds of 50 megabits download and 50 megabits upload for $54.99 a month. Higher level tiers would include 100/100 for $64.99/month, 500/500 for $149.99/month, and a gigabit line for businesses at a cost of $199.99/month.

Now that we’ve looked at some of the advantages and benefits of the fiber optic infrastructure proposed by the China Broadband Committee, what about the objections? A number of residents voiced their opposition to the project on my Facebook post, so let’s take a look at some of those objections.

One of the most common reasons people are against the project is because they think there are other technologies that will make the proposed fiber optic network obsolete or redundant in the near future. The technologies most often referenced are 5G wireless and Starlink, a global internet initiative being built by tech billionaire and Tesla/SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

While new 5G cellular networks are currently being rolled out nationwide, it’s not clear when the technology will be widely available here in China. And even when such capability does become available to most residents, it will likely suffer from similar problems that our existing cell coverage suffers from now – uncertain coverage on the outskirts of town and in certain areas. (I still can’t get decent cell reception at my home just off Lakeview Drive, in China Village.) Further, while 5G is able to provide impressive download speeds and low latency, it requires line of sight with the broadcasting tower and can easily be blocked by anything in between like trees or buildings. Residents of China who currently suffer from poor internet service or cell phone reception today would likely suffer from the same problems with 5G coverage as well. Fiber optic cable installation to those residents would solve that problem, at least in terms of internet access, once and for all.

Starlink is a technology that aims to deliver internet access to the world through thousands of satellites in low-earth orbit, but it is still years away from reaching fruition and there is no guarantee it will deliver on its potential. When I spoke with the Broadband Committee’s Tod Detre, he said he applied to be part of the Starlink beta program more than six months ago, and has only recently been accepted (although he’s still awaiting the hardware required to connect). There is also some resistance to the Starlink project, primarily from astronomers and other star gazers, who worry how launching so many satellites into orbit will affect our view of the night sky. As of June, Starlink has launched approximately 1,700 satellites into orbit and currently services about 10,000 customers. The initiative is estimated to cost at least $10 billion before completion. At the moment, the company claims to offer speeds between 50 and 150 megabits and hopes to increase that speed to 300 megabits by the end of 2021, according to a recent article on CNET.com. To compare, copper-based networks can support data transfer speeds up to 40 gigabits, and fiber optic wires have virtually no limit as they can send signals at the speed of light. Of course, these upper speeds are always limited by the capabilities of the hardware at either ends of the connection.

While both 5G and technologies like Elon Musk’s Starlink hold a lot of potential for consumers, 5G service is likely to suffer from the same problems residents are already experiencing with current technology, and Starlink is still a big unknown and fairly expensive at $99/month plus an initial cost of $500 for the satellite dish needed to receive the signal. It’s also fairly slow even at the future promised speed increase of 300 megabits. As the Broadband Committee’s chairman, Bob O’Connor, pointed out at a recent public hearing on the proposed network, bandwidth needs have been doubling every ten years and likely to continue increasing in a similar fashion for the near future.

Another objection frequently voiced by residents is that the town government should not be in the business of providing internet service to residents. O’Connor also addressed this concern in a recent public hearing before the China selectboard. He said that residents should think about the proposed fiber optic infrastructure in the same way they view roads and streets. (This is a particularly apt comparison since the internet is often referred to as the “information superhighway.”) O’Connor says that although the town owns the roads, it may outsource the maintenance of those roads to a subcontractor, in the same way that the town would own this fiber optic infrastructure, but will be subcontracting the service and maintenance of that network to Axiom.

The Broadband Committee also points out that there are some benefits that come with the town’s ownership of the fiber optic cable and hardware: if residents don’t like the service they are receiving from one provider they can negotiate to receive service from another instead. The committee has said that although Axiom would initially be contracted for 12 years, there would be a service review every three years to see if we are happy with their service. If not, we could negotiate with another provider to service the town instead. This gives the town significant leverage to find the best service available, leverage that we would not have if the infrastructure was owned by a service provider like Spectrum or Consolidated Communications (both of whom have shown little interest in the near term for upgrading the China area with fiber optic cable).

There are certainly risks and outstanding questions associated with the committee’s proposal. Will there be enough subscribers for the project to pay for itself? Could another technology come along that would make the proposed infrastructure obsolete or less attractive in the future? Will proposed contractors like Axiom and Hawkeye Connections (who will be doing the installation of the physical infrastructure) provide quality and reliable service to residents long-term? Can we expect the same level of maintenance coverage to fix storm damage and outages that we experience now?

On the other hand, the potential benefits of the project are compelling. The internet, love it or hate it, has become an essential part of everyday life and looks only to become more essential in the years ahead. Having a reliable and high speed infrastructure for residential internet access is likely to play an important role in helping to grow China’s economy and to attract young families who are looking for a place to live and work.

Ultimately, voters will decide if the potential benefits outweigh the possible risks and pitfalls come this November.

Contact the author at ericwaustin@gmail.com.

More information is also available on the CBC website, chinabroadband.net.

Read all of The Town Line’s coverage of the China Broadband Committee here.

Selectmen approve CBC distribution of flyer

by Mary Grow

China selectmen held a special meeting Tuesday evening, Oct. 5, for one purpose: the China Broadband Committee (CBC) asked them to meet to approve distribution of a revised informational flyer on the proposed new internet system for the town.

Selectmen unanimously approved distribution of the flyer. CBC Chairman Robert O’Connor will have it printed at Saturn Business Systems, in Waterville; town office staff will mail it to every China address, with printing and postage costs to come from the CBC budget.

Before the vote, resident Joann Austin suggested selectmen should be supportive of committees they appoint if they want people to volunteer, and shared information from Consumer Reports on benefits of municipally-owned utilities, including broadband. After the vote, Selectboard Chairman Ronald Breton thanked CBC members for doing “a great job” providing information for voters.

On Nov. 2, China voters will decide whether to authorize, but not require, selectmen to borrow up to $5.8 million to help pay for new broadband infrastructure throughout town.

To publicize and explain the ballot question, CBC members have held a series of lightly-attended informational meetings and have created a website, chinabroadband.net. The informational flyer will supplement these efforts.

CBC members met for an hour Sept. 30 to put the flyer into final form, discussing grammar and graphics more than content. The content they were satisfied with, believing it will be helpful as voters try to understand the significance of their Nov. 2 decision.

Selectmen denied permission to use town funds to mail out an earlier draft of the flyer, because they saw it as one-sidedly in favor of the broadband project. The revised version has more details, including information on finances and on other issues raised in public discussions.

It also has a new section titled “Risk Factors, including Taxation.” The section points out uncertainties in predicting how smoothly construction work would go and how many residents would sign up for the new service. CBC members expect the new service, if approved by voters and authorized by selectmen, will be self-supporting and need no tax money, but they cannot guarantee that result.

Click here to view the China Broadband Committee’s informational flyer.

China Broadband Committee (CBC) informational session draws small audience

by Mary Grow

The China Broadband Committee’s third public informational session, held on-line only Sept. 26 and hosted from the Albert Church Brown Memorial Library, in China Village, drew a small audience with many questions.

CBC Chairman Robert O’Connor and Axiom Technologies President Mark Ouellette repeated information from earlier public meetings: the advantages of fiberoptic cable over current local transmission methods; the plan to have subscribers, not taxpayers, cover costs; the reasonable rates; and the responsibility of Axiom for all management and maintenance.

Audience members’ questions led to additional information. Some of the on-line questions were interrupted or distorted, something CBC members expect would not happen if the fiberoptic system were in place.

Ouellette explained that the present systems have all users on the same line, so to speak, so when a lot of people are on at the same time, service slows. With fiberoptic, he said, a single fiber goes from the central office to each home; there is no sharing.

When such a system is built, extra fibers are included to accommodate future users.

(See all our stories about the China broadband initiative here.)

Asked about the system’s life expectancy, Ouellette cited federal depreciation figures giving a half-life of about 17 years. In practice, he said, he knows of fiberoptic cable working for 40 years; he would not expect fiber installed in China in the next year or so to need replacement “in our lifetimes.”

Office equipment seldom lasts as long as the cables, Ouellette said, but Axiom keeps replacements on hand.

Axiom will have a technician in or near China to do repairs that cannot be handled by a telephone call. In case of storm damage, he expects repairs would be accomplished within 48 hours.

He pointed out that before fiberoptic cables can be fixed, utilities need to deal with dangerous live electric wires. Sometimes, he said, fiberoptic cables will stretch rather than break when stressed.

Yes, he assured resident Eric Austin, promised repair times – and many other details – will be in the contract Axiom signs with town officials, assuming the project goes ahead.

The next step is the Nov. 2 vote. If voters approve the bond issue, Axiom will begin signing up future subscribers and accepting $100 down payments as evidence of serious intent. The down payments will be applied to the first monthly bills.

If enough subscribers sign up in the next six to eight months to make the project financially viable, selectmen have the option of applying to the Maine Bond Bank in the spring of 2022.

CBC members expect after the first two or three years, subscriber fees will more than cover all costs, creating a surplus for the town. Use of the surplus, if it materializes, will be a local decision, Ouellette and CBC member Tod Detre emphasized. It could be used to pay off the bond faster; to reduce subscribers’ monthly fees; to create a fund to help low-income subscribers; to reduce property taxes; or for some other town purpose.

Detre asked Ouellette what would happen if Axiom went bankrupt, and partly answered his own question: since the town would own the broadband infrastructure, town officials could offer it to another service provider.

Ouellette added that, unlike some larger companies that are serving or have served China residents, Axiom has not gone bankrupt nor changed ownership in its 17 years of existence, and doesn’t plan to. It is a Maine-based company, serving towns all over Maine.

Axiom does not have the national reach of larger companies, but loss of scale leads to an increase in customer relationships, he said. After all, he pointed out, here is the company president participating in a zoom meeting on a Sunday afternoon.

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

China Broadband Committee had a busy September

by Mary Grow

China Broadband Committee (CBC) members had a busy late September schedule, holding a committee meeting Sept. 23; participating in a public informational session by zoom Sept. 26 (see related story); attending the selectmen’s Sept. 27 public hearing on the Nov. 2 warrant article asking for funding for expanded broadband in China; and later discussing their proposed informational flyer with selectmen.

Selectmen did not approve printing and mailing the Sept. 27 version of the flyer with town funds.

CBC members therefore confirmed the committee meeting they had tentatively scheduled for 4 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 30. They intend to redraft the flyer.

Ronald Breton, chairman of the selectboard, said if they work fast, he will call a special selectmen’s meeting to consider a new version, rather than delaying distribution until after the Oct. 12 selectboard meeting.

On Nov. 2, China voters will be asked to authorize – but not require – selectmen to obtain a $5.8 million bond, to be supplemented by grants, to build broadband infrastructure throughout the town.

The Sept. 23 CBC meeting was devoted to plans to publicize the Nov. 2 vote. CBC members reviewed a two-sided legal-sized flyer that presented information supporting the broadband expansion and specifically urged a “yes” vote on the ballot question.

Selectman Wayne Chadwick, from the audience, expressed his personal opinion that the committee should not use town funds to influence voters.

CBC members pointed out that on the ballot, voters will see recommendations from the selectboard and the budget committee (both oppose the question, the selectboard by 3-2 and the budget committee by 4-1), but no recommendation from the CBC, which supports the question.

[See all our stories about the broadband project here.]

By Sept. 27, they had revised the flyer to eliminate exhortations to approve the bond issue. Selectmen nonetheless objected that it was one-sidedly in favor of the bond issue – “all pro and no con,” as Chadwick put it.

Breton remembered an earlier meeting when he had urged CBC members to promote their project with funds selectmen appropriated for the committee. “You got your money, go out and sell it,” he quoted himself, from memory.

More recently, however, Breton asked Town Manager Rebecca Hapgood to consult town attorney Amanda Meader about the situation. Hapgood reported that Meader said a flyer that was “persuasive” rather than “informational” did not benefit voters and should not be funded by the town.

Breton therefore joined his fellow board members in suggesting the flyer provide additional factual information, for example on costs, that they thought would be helpful to voters.

The result was a vote to ask CBC members to prepare a revised flyer with more information and less persuasion, and to seek approval to have it printed and distributed with town funds. Breton, Chadwick, Blane Casey and Irene Belanger voted in favor; Janet Preston, who is the selectboard’s ex-officio representative on the committee, abstained.

Preston explained that she thinks the improved broadband service is a benefit to the town and supports the bond issue, but she also understands the objections to the Sept. 27 version of the flyer.

Public hearing well attended

The half-hour public hearing on the Nov. 2 bond issue that preceded the Sept. 27 selectmen’s meeting was one of the best attended in recent memory, with audience members participating from the meeting room and over the town’s Live Stream.

Audience members’ questions about the China Broadband Committee’s (CBC) plans if the $5.8 million bond issue is approved were answered by Ronald Breton, chairman of the selectmen; Mark Ouellette, President of Axiom Technologies, attending his second China meeting in two days; and CBC members.

Ouellette and CBC Chairman Robert O’Connor explained some of the technical issues about connecting directly from the world-wide web via a southern Maine point and a China central office to each subscriber’s house.

Because of the direct connection, Ouellette said, each subscriber will get the speed of downloaded and uploaded information paid for, every hour of every day all year, without the variability characteristic of current services.

The proposed bond issue is for 25 years.

Residents satisfied with their current service may keep it. O’Connor said currently about 70 percent of China residents have cable service; another about 25 percent have DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) service; and the remaining about five percent have no internet access.

Selectman and ex-officio CBC member Janet Preston said Regional School Unit #18 had provided a map showing where students had no access, providing locations for some of the unserved areas.

Ouellette said employees of Hawkeye Fiber Optics (also called Hawkeye Connections) have finished the survey of existing utility poles in China and are scheduled to report immediately. Survey results will provide a more accurate estimate of the cost of building the proposed new network.

CBC member Tod Detre asked for and received permission to post the results on the committee’s website, chinabroadband.net.

Video of the hearing can be viewed here.

China Broadband Committee (CBC) drafts printed publicity material

by Mary Grow

At their Sept. 16 meeting, China Broadband Committee (CBC) members continued planning publicity for the bond issue they are sponsoring on China’s Nov. 2 local ballot. They focused on drafting printed materials, and briefly discussed the next scheduled public presentation.

That presentation will be at 2 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 26, at the Albert Church Brown Memorial Library. The meeting is only on Zoom; there will be no in-person audience. Pre-registration is required by emailing chinalibraryacb@gmail.com; the Zoom link will be provided.

CBC Chairman Robert O’Connor intends to tape the meeting for later viewing. It should become available on the town website, under Live Stream’s list of previous events.

CBC members scheduled another committee meeting at 4 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 23, to agree on who will say what on Sept. 26 and to put their proposed flyer in final form.

The Nov. 4 ballot asks voters to vote yes or no on a long question that, if approved, would authorize, but not require, China selectmen to issue a bond to provide up to $5,608,700 to build new broadband infrastructure in town.

The CBC expects enough additional funding from state and federal grants to cover the total cost of the project, estimated at almost $6.5 million.

During the Sept. 16 discussion, John Dougherty, of Mission Broadband, consultants to the CBC, said that grants are already being awarded. If voters approve on Nov. 2, one use of the bond money could be to provide matching funds so the CBC can start grant applications.

The Sept. 16 discussion of the flyer covered two points, content and distribution methods.

CBC members are working with a two-sided document on standard 8½-by-11 paper. Their task is to explain complexities, including technical internet information, clearly enough so that voters understand what their Nov. 2 decision will mean.

They agree on what the flyer and other informational materials should say, but have different ideas on what to emphasize and how to convey their points most clearly. Both Doherty and Mark Ouellette, head of Axiom Technologies, the CBC’s choice to oversee construction of new broadband infrastructure and to run and maintain the expanded service, advised them to simplify the information to essentials.

Committee members discussed distribution through various means, with the goal of informing as many China residents as possible. In addition to the flyer, they plan yard signs advertising the ballot question.

They also plan to schedule future public informational meetings and discussed possible places to hold them.

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

China Broadband Committee (CBC) discusses how to publicize ballot question

by Mary Grow

China Broadband Committee members spent their Sept. 9 meeting discussing plans to publicize and explain the Nov. 2 ballot question asking voters to authorize borrowing to support expanded and improved internet service.

The question is long and complicated (see The Town Line, Sept. 9, p. 3). Committee members hope for lopsided approval from local voters, to encourage selectmen to go ahead with the requested bond issue.

The ballot question says specifically that if too few customers sign up to make the new service self-supporting after the first two or three years, selectmen are not obligated to apply for the loan.

The question does not say the town will run the internet service, a point CBC members believe should be emphasized. If voters approve and selectmen proceed, the town will contract with Machias-based Axiom Technologies, and Axiom will be responsible for enrolling customers, overseeing construction of the system, collecting payments, doing repairs and all other aspects of operations and maintenance.

A committee member compared the broadband plan with the way China officials had roads plowed, before the town had its own public works department: they signed contracts with area plowing services, whose operators provided trucks and drivers and were responsible for getting roads clear.

Smaller Maine towns provide most services the same way, other committee members have pointed out. Selectmen and town office staff are not expected to teach in the schools, repave roads, collect trash or do other services they delegate.

CBC members reviewed a draft two-sided flyer explaining how the planned system would work and its benefits to townspeople. Committee member, former selectman and retiring Regional School Unit #18 board member Neil Farrington stressed the latter point. Fast, reliable and widely available broadband will benefit all residents, especially students, business owners and older residents getting medical attention without leaving home, he argued.

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

Committee members scheduled a public informational presentation for 2 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 26, at the Albert Church Brown Memorial Library, in China Village.

They discussed preparing roadside and yard signs; doing mailings to China voters; taking out ads in The Town Line and getting articles into other area papers; and organizing door-to-door informational visits.

The next CBC meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 16.

(See all our stories about the China broadband initiative here.)

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.