Joe Oliva, Community Broadband Fellow, outlines the importance of community efforts in bringing broadband expansion to our region.
It’s not a novel thing to say that the time for action regarding broadband expansion is now. The lede of numerous commentary pieces, the heart of messaging around infrastructure goals and legislative accomplishments, this sentiment is shared widely in the broadband ecosystem — and for good reason. Passage of federal and state bills and bonds, grant and affordability programs supported by bodies at every level of government, and shifting public perception about the necessity of high-speed, reliable, and cost-effective broadband access as brought on by the pandemic have created an exceptional set of conditions for communities to assume control of their own broadband futures. In these changing tides, the power to shape how, where, and to whom broadband gets deployed finds itself wielded by communities more so than ever. These types of decisions were historically driven by profit motives and cost-benefit equations; and thus, in particularly rural states like our own, smaller and more remote communities have often been excluded from strategic plans.
Okay, but what does this shift mean? Who does get to call the shots if internet service providers (ISPs) aren’t? How does this decision-making process unfold? Whose voices get included?
While there is no one answer to any of these questions, nor to the panoply of additional questions that seem to fan from those just answered, there is an approach that works — the community-driven broadband process. This process represents the culmination of years of experience working in rural communities; it is sensitive to the fact that every community is unique, while promoting the fundamental values that translate in communities across time and space. A true grassroots strategy, its concrete, attainable actions build into broad-based movements that propel projects forward. Really, it lays out a clear roadmap for success in a relatively uncharted development landscape.
Roque Bluffs shares the story of many small towns in Maine. In 2018, it was moderately served by an ISP, a good thing to be sure — but while internet connectivity existed there, connection was slow and spotty; leaving residents, businesses, and other community stakeholders left frustrated. The problem was that there wasn’t much incentive to improve the network. As a town of about 300 people on the far Downeast coast, its rural nature and low population density did not profile as a worthwhile investment by ISPs, and that’s understandable. Fiber — the gold standard in broadband technology — is not cheap to deploy, after all.
Yet, armed with the knowledge that help for their connectivity problem wouldn’t be found in the marketplace, the community of Roque Bluffs got together to form their own solution. With guidance from the Island Institute and the community-driven broadband process; and with the audacity that comes from braving many cold coastal winters, they decided to challenge the notion that a town like theirs couldn’t have their own fiber network -- and it worked.
First, and most crucially, they formed a broadband committee. Broadband committees act as the focal point in the community-driven broadband process. They perform the role as a conduit between community members, funding sources, businesses, and consultants — filtering information, establishing and pursuing priorities, and figuring out how to finance a project. In January of 2020, they received a grant from USDA of $893,170 to build a fiber network for 166 homes, 22 farms, and 16 businesses.
Though securing funding may seem like just another step-in-the-process, it’s not. Figuring out how to pay for a project is the main stumbling block that affronts municipal and regional approaches up and down the state. The unifying criteria in the mélange of public funding sources for broadband projects is community engagement. Securing a grant like this is a testament to the two years of hard work that the Roque Bluffs Broadband Committee displayed. They actively engaged stakeholders, did their research, thought through what they wanted and went out and got it — and at the heart of it all were the voices of their neighbors, friends, and fellow community members.
I’ve only just scratched the surface of this story. If you would like to know more, check this piece out.
Western Maine has also seen a surge of community-driven activity in the broadband space. In 2020, Maine West — a partnership of local and regional organizations in the Oxford region — supported the Broadband Boot Camp program for residents in the area. The eight-session curriculum highlighted several critical topics for communities to wrestle with. From the very basics of broadband’s importance to models of ownership, to digital equity and inclusion, the program provided a valuable baseline for communities to work from.
The first ask that the boot camp had for its participants was for each participant to form a broadband committee of 3-5 people in their respective towns. Nine towns participated: Fryeburg, Denmark, Bridgton, Buckfield, Naples, Harrison, Sumner, Hartford, Hebron, Newry, Albany, Bethel, Woodstock. Maine West understood that the lessons taught in the program could only make a wider impact if municipal committees were assembled — that the participant community leaders had to carry the torch back to their own communities.
And so, committees were formed in many of these places. Surveys were administered, inventories were assessed, and priorities were set — yet they each faced a problem like that of Roque Bluff’s: their relative size and rural nature made it challenging to attract help from either ISPs or governmental aid. To solve the problem that they could, towns turned towards their neighbors to pursue regional approaches. COLAB (Cumberland-Oxford Lakes Area Broadband) with the help of GPCOG (the Greater Portland Council of Governments) and ESRB (Eastern Slopes Regional Broadband) emerged to give collective power to the area’s broadband initiatives.
As of today, both groups are in the planning phase – conducting meetings with potential ISPs, securing funding, and mapping out network designs. Together the groups cover much of Maine’s western border, and their presence signals the strength of community-driven broadband processes.
There’s no two-ways about it — pulling a broadband project together is difficult. Every town has its own unique set of wants and needs; and priorities are not uniform across neighborhoods, never-mind across regions. Where some municipalities may be more eager to overbuild and have some level of ownership over their network, others may seek out ISPs to expand their services. Where one part of town may only need to support residents’ ability to stream and surf the web, another may need to support a hospital or multiple businesses. The point of the community-driven model is that only the residents of a town can make those decisions.
Whatever outcome the process generates, a community that determines its broadband future using this model can be assured that it is faithfully representing its own interests. The days of relying on ISPs alone to fix connectivity issues are on the way out. These projects are about community; they are about self-reliance. The notion that “modern problems require modern solutions” doesn’t hold water in this context. Indeed, the optimal approach is rooted in our very nature as humans – it’s decision-making that is collective, sensitive, and highly localized. Successful projects depend on community members who are committed to the mission at hand — constantly engaging their neighbors in conversation, education, and activism. Universal access to high-speed, affordable broadband is more attainable than ever. Now is the time for organization and activation at the community level.
Joe is a Mainer through and through. He was born in Portland and grew up in Yarmouth after his parents figured that a two-bedroom apartment wouldn't fit their newborn twins and an older brother. He went on to study Government at Colby College, and thereafter moved back to Portland, where he lives now. In his free time, he enjoys making music, riding his bike, and enjoying a hot cup of coffee on a cool morning. He has worked behind a deli counter, pouring beers at a brewery, and as an organizer during the 2020 campaign season. Each of these experiences brought a new love and appreciation for the people, places, and ways of being that make Maine special. Joe is, above all else, looking forward to serving the communities that he feels very lucky to call home.