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Route 26 may get wired
OXFORD COUNTY — When considering broadband Internet access for under-served portions of Oxford County, members of the Western Maine Economic Development Council (WMEDC) have a very difficult choice before them.
Should they jumpstart an aggressive effort to muster the millions of dollars necessary to build infrastructure to areas that are currently without broadband access?
Or should they simply wait for the technology to change in such a way that fast Internet connections can be accomplished with existing infrastructures.
Linda Walbridge, director of the WMEDC, says that either way, it is critical to get places, such as Route 26 between Paris and Bethel, equipped to meet business needs.
"There isn't any question that this is highly crucial to Oxford County's economic development," said Walbridge. "Many businesses in the area are small businesses, and people who work out of their homes. People can't compete with businesses across our state borders, or even elsewhere in the state."
Currently, the best way to get broadband Internet access is through a fiber-optic wiring system.
Right now, a fiber-optic system runs up Route 26, but it ends in South Paris. Some Internet access can be derived from copper wiring, but even the copper ends at KBS, north of Paris, according to Walbridge.
When assessing business Internet needs, Walbridge said that the limitation quickly became obvious.
"We slammed into that wall in about 30 seconds," she said.
Walbridge said that the larger fiber-optic providers, such as Time-Warner, have focused on more heavily-populated areas, and don't want to take on the costs of providing Internet access to more sparsely-populated regions.
"They've said it's cost-prohibitive to wire rural areas," said Walbridge. "That's ceded territory to [smaller providers such as] Axiom, Saddleback, and Pioneer. They've been able to come in and create a niche market helping rural areas get wired."
"We can't have businesses without Internet access, and we can't have Internet access until there are enough businesses there," said Walbridge. "It's a case of which comes first, the chicken or the egg."
"Our coverage in Oxford County is spotty," said Walbridge, "like most rural counties."
She notes that some municipalities and areas have been more successful than others at providing broadband Internet access to their residents.
"Bethel does pretty good," she said. "Smaller areas like Hartford are actually blacked out. Byron, Porter small towns can't do it on their own. Getting infrastructure into rural areas is what will help them to survive."
Walbridge noted that a lack of Internet access is not only a deterrent to businesses that want to set up shop.
"Lot of people want to choose to move to rural areas, but they can't if they don't have access," she said. "They can't telecommute, or do other things."
The bottom line, said Walbridge, is that rural communities need to get online. The question is how best to do it.
"We need Internet broadband access one way or the other," said Walbridge. "It's just the time frame and how we're going to do it."
A difficult decision
WMEDC has been meeting with companies, government entities, and other economic development groups to try to assess whether it makes sense to build a fiber-optic network, or whether it is better to wait for technology to meet the need.
The stakes are high, as a wrong decision in either direction could dramatically impact the business community.
Waiting for a more high-tech solution to emerge from the marketplace could leave the local business community struggling for an indeterminate period of time. That option only makes sense if Mainers can be reasonably sure that the solution is only a couple of years away.
"There is a cost for each of those people not being able to go into business for three or four years," said Walbridge.
On the other hand, a massive multi-year, concentrated effort to build a fiber-optic network to serve Oxford County will have been absolutely wasted if, before it is even completed, people can suddenly get broadband Internet access through from some other tech-based means.
"We don't want to move forward if in two years you could plug your PC into your cellphone," said Walbridge. "There's a point of view that we're going to spend an enormous amount of taxpayer’s dollars on this."
The work would be funded, at least in part, by federal and state grants.
"We don't know yet where the truth lies with all this," said Walbridge.
She estimates that the WMEDC is five or six meetings away from having all of the information they need to make a recommendation.
"We need to figure out where the truth is, and if we still need to fund wireless broadband," said Walbridge.
Walbridge says that a nuanced issue like this underscores the need for an agency like the WMEDC.
"It is not a simple yes or no answer," she said. "It involves a lot of companies and different timelines. That's what you have economic development agencies for, to figure out where the truth lies and who all the players are."
Once their analysis is complete, Walbridge says that it will be much easier for the region to act.
"A regional approach is much better," she said. "There's got to be a large coordinated effort or it will never get done."