What’s next for China’s broadband committee?

by Mary Grow

China Broadband Committee (CBC) members met Nov. 4 to consider “What’s next for broadband in China,” after voters rejected their request to authorize select board members to borrow money for expanded broadband infrastructure.

After discussing options for continuing to improve broadband service for China residents, they brought the “What’s next” question to China select board members at that board’s Nov. 8 meeting.

The select board has the power to disband a committee it has created. Board members heard a summary of possibilities from CBC Chairman Robert O’Connor and member Jamie Pitney, and a plea from resident Joann Austin.

Austin told them, “We [the Town of China] are not what we could be” in terms of providing good internet service. She said in light of new state and federal funds earmarked for broadband expansion, the responsible course would be to continue to work toward improvement

New select board member Jeanne Marquis said it would be “foolish,” and would leave China behind as neighboring towns advance their systems, not to let the CBC continue.

Board members Janet Preston, Wayne Chadwick and Blane Casey agreed, with the two men emphasizing that the CBC should spend as little local money as possible. No one had an exact figure on expenditures to date; Town Manager and Town Treasurer Rebecca Hapgood said she would get a figure the next day, and urged discussants meanwhile to “Stop guessing!”

Select board Chairman Ronald Breton concluded board members “don’t want to shut the CBC down.”

The Nov. 4 CBC members’ discussion considered two broad options: join or form a regional broadband group with other area municipalities, or continue the China-only policy represented by the proposal outlined during 2021. Each option had sub-options.

The nearest already-organized regional group, the Southwestern Waldo Broadband Coalition (SWBC), includes Palermo and four other towns. Another group has formed west of the Kennebec River.

China’s other neighboring towns, Albion, Winslow, Vassalboro and Windsor, are so far unorganized, opening the possibility of forming a coalition with one or several of them.

CBC member Pitney said he had been in touch with Palermo Select Board member Bob Kurek, active in the SWBC (and a Palermo representative on China’s Transfer Station Committee). Pitney said his impression was that SWBC members want to make more progress as their own group before considering expansion.

If China were to continue pursuing its own program, CBC members considered two ways: the public-private partnership they had been working toward, with the town of China to own the infrastructure that was built, maintained and operated by a private company; or inviting a private company to do everything, as the current internet providers do.

Spectrum is the main provider of internet service to China residents. Consolidated Communications serves a smaller number. There was consensus among CBC members that they had given both companies several chances to offer better service to more households, and neither company had responded adequately.

Since early in 2021 CBC members have worked with Mark Ouellette, president of Axiom Technologies, looking toward contracting with Axiom for the proposed system. Ouellette said at the Nov. 4 meeting that he is willing to continue to assist them despite the Nov. 2 vote.

Ouellette asked for time to consider possibilities, leading CBC members to schedule a meeting for 4 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 17.


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