Building Publicly Owned Broadband Starts with a Low-Tech Approach: Community Buy-in

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On a Tuesday afternoon, standing in front of the Islesboro Sewing Circle on an island off Maine’s MidCoast, Jane Wherren holds up items recently completed by members for the annual fundraiser. The president of one of the nation’s oldest sewing circles, called simply “circle” by locals, Wherren begins every meeting with show and tell. As sewing machines hum and knitting needles click, a dozen women glance up from their work to watch. “Look at these potholders with blueberry pie.” A woman calls out, “Who knitted those cute mother and baby socks?”

Standing in a 120-year-old building with one of the oldest sewing groups in the nation, you’d almost think you had stepped back in time. Then a voice calls out, “Those are gorgeous, can you zoom in?” 

Sewing Circle president, Jane Wherren, displays completed items for annual sale to Zoom attendees. (Photo by Carolyn Campbell)

The voice isn’t coming from the women in the room; it’s coming from a computer held by the circle’s secretary. To zoom in the woman walks closer to Wherren, turning the screen to capture the purses. Later in the meeting, when women sing happy birthday to one of its members, women both online and in person sing along. 

“We’ve been having hybrid meetings since the pandemic,” Wherren said. “We still do. We want to include everyone from our community, whether they’re homebound, in another state, or just unable to attend. Soon we’ll be teaching online sewing classes.”

Ten years ago, long before today’s unprecedented amounts of federal funding in rural Internet infrastructure, Roger Heinen watched Islesboro’s population drop precipitously. “We were facing an existential crisis,” he said. “There’s nothing like young people moving away to threaten the survival of an island community.”

In 2014, Heinen formed a small volunteer coalition to come up with a solution for the island of under 600 year-round residents. 

“Our coalition spent two years talking to lobstermen, selectmen, the hunting club, the school, and power brokers like the sewing circle,” he said. 

In 2016, voters approved a $3.8 million bond to fund the construction of a fiber-to-the-premises infrastructure capable of speeds of 1 gigabit per second. By 2018, Islesboro Municipal Broadband construction was complete and service was installed for all home and business subscribers.

“Getting the network off the ground was the hardest work I ever did,” Heinen said. “We (the town) knew that at the end of the day when the last ferry left, there was no government to save us. We were on our own.”

It’s been nearly five years since Islesboro’s Municipal Broadband connected those first subscribers. Today, as unprecedented federal and state funding is funneled into high-speed broadband access, increasing numbers of coalitions are attempting to build publicly owned networks. In the last two years, numerous attempts in rural Maine have failed. Lack of financial resources is often cited as a factor. Some say campaigns by large telecommunications companies to undermine broadband utilities are another reason.

Heinen says another issue is the most important barrier to getting municipal broadband off the ground. 

“When I talk to towns, I tell them money is not the primary issue,” he said. “What’s most critical is the ability to create strong social capital. There is money out there. There are technical and financial consultants out there. Social capital building, though, that must come from the inside.”

Peggy Schaffer, Maine’s first director for broadband funding, now a strategic consultant and board member on the American Association for Public Broadband, echoed Heinen’s advice. 

“Though there is no clear path to success, strong community engagement is at the heart of most successful publicly owned utilities,” Schaffer said.

In June, one of Maine’s newest town-owned fiber optic networks, Leeds Broadband, will start marketing their service after nearly four years of navigating the murky challenges of garnering support and overcoming incumbent provider opposition. Joe McLean, the organizer of the network, building community understanding and support was important at every stage of the process.

PowerPoint presentation at Eastport City Council meeting. (Photo by Carolyn Campbell)

“It’s been a long haul of hard work,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of coalition building as we’ve worked alongside our selectmen. Each stage has another level of community buy-in, from basic education to the benefits of high-speed internet, to why we can offer it cheaper and better.”

Both Heinen and McLean said the political disagreement between local elected officials and publicly owned broadband committees can be another impediment to implementation. “I’ve watched broadband committees who are on a completely different page with their selectmen and other people in town, arguing about the two different ideas rather than just getting to one good idea and trying to push it,” McLean said.

Having worked with dozens of coalitions promoting publicly owned broadband, Schaffer said one of the biggest mistakes coalitions make is presenting fiber-optic broadband as very technical.

“In reality, it’s a very human infrastructure,” she said. “When asking for money for publicly owned networks, committees need to realize that just because they’ve picked the right technology for their community, that doesn’t mean the community is going to buy into it.”

There’s no substitute for spending time to build local support, she said. 

“There’s so much work to do, committees often forget the importance of public outreach. If committees don’t (get buy-in), when the cable companies and the Spectrums come with their flyers, mailers, newspaper ads, and online attacks, run by people who make their living running these reaching people on a seemingly personal level, it’s too late to start to build support.”

Relieved to have weathered some of these incumbent campaigns, McLean’s team is excited to begin marketing. “We’ll be putting up displays in the town office, at the farmers’ market, and other events around town,” he said. “We want everyone to understand that with this nonprofit model, the more people sign up the cheaper it can be. We are going to focus on being a local provider for our local community. We want people to know that in comparison to the incumbent provider, we can provide far better service for far less.”

Schaffer said the benefits of building strong social capital as part of municipal broadband projects are worth the effort. “We see it across the country,” she said. “Community-owned networks … put revenues back into the community. They increase speed and service while reducing prices. For communities who can bring these networks to fruition, the profits always exceed the costs. The challenge is getting the community on board.”

To do that, Heinen has some practical advice. 

“Make sure to include your sewing circle.”

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