Maine

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Sources[edit]

Overview[edit]

The state of Maine (ME) is building an 1100-mile series of open access dark fibre rings of 144 to 288 strands around the state, passing through 100 communities. They overlap giving the project its name: Three Ring Binder. Like the neighboring Network New Hampshire Now project, Three Ring Binder is to facilitate "any carrier that would like to participate" and "community anchor institutions" such as hospitals, schools, libraries, community centers, fire stations and government buildings (75 as of the interview date, target of 100 to 200). The construction cost of the lateral being the highest cost, this allows multiple carriers to serve these institutions.

The Maine Fiber Company itself focuses on this backhaul alone, acting as a "middle mile" network that does not connect most buildings. Most consumers will see fixed wireless (typically 900 MHz) and 3G and 4G cell services, with a few seeing 5G-style WiMax/Wi-Fi and increasingly 700 MHz technologies with long range antennas. A number of different last-mile wireless technologies are required to serve rural terrain with foliage, hills, weather and other challenges.

Unserved communities, including those with no utilities at all, are the highest priority. Other areas including Orient, Carey Plantation, Hodgeton, Danforth had no service options including from incumbents. Small providers like Pioneer Broadband used the backhaul to build out their network to residential users. Even some hospitals and government buildings do not have the sophistication to run unlit fibre and so rely on carriers to do that for them.

The network is designed not to overbuild private facilities and does not connect buildings already on private fibre.

History/relationships[edit]

Maine Research and Education Network convened initial research inviting carriers and institutions. When the US National Broadband Plan required matching funds, a small CLEC named GWI came forward to front the carrier-neutral project until MFC was formed to raise the matching funds (about US$7M of a total US$32M), own the network, and lease it. Meanwhile, in the legislature, the competitive changes and disruption (of incumbent telcos and cablecos) required clarifications. After an exhaustive debate, the end result was that MFC was defined by the legislature as a new class of utility, essentially a dark fibre / unlit provider. The Maine Public Utilities Commission, part of the Executive arm, grants that status and continues to study the structure of the industry and the role of a utility infrastructure provider status that does not compete in the retail market and can accordingly be less regulated. As of January 2012 there was no standard federal designation and thus the US FCC does not determine the tariffs, status or otherwise.

The Maine Municipal Association, relatively powerful in Maine's decentralized political structure, provided a unified way to reach and consult the many communities involved. Education and outreach, partly funded from the planning and adoption funds of the federal Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program, helped reach farmers, fishers, and other rural industries. A "full court press" on public relations has continued throughout the build, so "that goodwill is in the bank should anyone try to disrupt the project." This has involved executives as well as PR people, providing "innoculation against trouble" especially with organizations of similar mandates or missions, such as hospital associations or public safety professional organizations.

Build management[edit]

NextGen Telecom Services has kept the project ahead of its schedule to substantially complete in 2 years, fully in 3. The make-ready construction on existing utility poles (rearranging cables, strengthening or even replacing) is often the most expensive and time-consuming. Pole owners Fairpoint, Central Maine Power, Maine Public Service, Bangor Hydro have cooperated well. When cablecos such as Time-Warner Cable have to move cables, also, they've been compliant. Tilson Technology Management's Amy Hayes and Mark Curtis, on a staff augmentation basis to MFC, supervised the pre-builds to finish by end of 2012. Conventional project management which doesn't deal well with politics, technology or environmental compliance problems (especially on new poles). A compliance-first approach meant compliant, permitted, materials sourced for compressed schedules NextGen faced.

The due diligence done by the federal government was extensive and applied to markets, technologies and players. The NTIA best practice exchange, including conferences of the BTOP grant recipients at which they meet each other, will probably improve build and public relations practices. Ensuring environmental compliance to higher federal standards, engaging the right stakeholders, aggressively procuring (especially where federal law required) paid off in a large project.

Operations[edit]

Carrier signups are critical, and large carrier sales required a fulltime business development person before the network opens. Early outreach serves a pre-sales function, ensuring that there are expectant customers waiting when the network goes live. Every strand of fibre is mapped, and additional engineering and implementation staff wait to get customers connected.

(audio interview) [1]