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How Chebeague Island Crossed the Digital Divide

Or, the story of how a plumber and a business counselor became network engineers.

David R. Hill, Treasurer
chebeague.net, LLC
drhill@chebeague.net

August 27, 2015

Islanders are used to providing for themselves, and Chebeague Island is no exception.  Over the years, Chebeaguers have built their own library, recreation center, museum, day care center, and affordable housing, created an assisted living facility, and even provided their own ferry service.  Plus, they became their own town.  So it should come as no surprise that when islanders couldn’t convince anybody to provide them with Internet service, they took up the challenge and did it themselves.

We’re proud of our homegrown Internet service, but with the need for even more speed and investment, we need the cooperation of local, state and federal governments, as well as that of FairPoint, which will finally offer Internet on the island.

Owner of an island plumbing company, Beverly Johnson had been authoring the island website, www.chebeague.org, since 1996, before the term “blog” had even been invented.  Since she was using dial-up exclusively, she limited the site to text only as much as possible so that she could upload it and other islanders could download it with their dial-up connections.  But it was slo‑o‑o‑w in both directions and she longed for the kinds of speeds her mainland neighbors enjoyed.

I’m Beverly’s brother-in-law, David Hill, a business counselor and director of the Maine Small Business Development Center at CEI in Wiscasset.  I moved to Chebeague permanently in 2004 and was used to the Internet speeds I had at work and our former home on Cousins Island in Yarmouth.  I, too, wanted faster speeds and my wife, Nancy, pestered me constantly to do something about it.

So Bev and I started to look for solutions.  We worked with Fletcher Kittredge and his crew at GWI, but at that time the regulatory atmosphere was unfavorable.  We approached TimeWarner and Verizon (since succeeded by FairPoint), but with no success.  Finally, in 2005, we found two entrepreneurs from New Hampshire who leased a T1 line, installed a wireless transmitter on the roof of the Chebeague Inn, and provided Internet service for about six weeks until they discovered that the island was not the gold mine they thought it would be and abruptly discontinued their business.  At that point we knew we would have to do it ourselves.

In 2006, we made contact with Peter Petersen of Swanville, Maine, who had founded Mainely Wired because he wanted better Internet for himself and his neighbors – just like us!  He agreed to procure bandwidth for us, do the engineering needed to install wireless transmitters at strategic locations around the Island, and train us in the art and science of wireless Internet installations.  And so it happened that a plumber and a business counselor became network technicians.

In order to fund this venture, we assembled a group of a dozen “investors,” who formed chebeague.net, Inc. with the expressed intent to provide for the community rather than to provide a return on investment for themselves.  We became the first two employees with little, if any, compensation.  We started a website, www.chebeague.net.  Bolstered by a $75,000 grant from the ConnectME Authority, grants from the Island Institute and Chebeague’s Recompense Foundation, and a donation from a private individual, a new ISP (Internet Service Provider) was born on Chebeague Island.

It was decided to make chebeague.net a socially conscious company.  Service was free to the Island non-profits, government, police, and aboard the ferry Islander, there was a reduced rate during the winter for seasonal residents and a low-income rate for those of lesser means.  The antenna mounting brackets were re-cycled satellite dish mounts from a friend in Waldoboro.  E-mail billing saved paper and two dollars a month for customers.  We didn’t charge for technical support, even for non-network issues, such as setting up e-mail addresses, which we provided for free.

With the help of two independent contractors (Joe Ballard and Doug Ross), during our spare time away from our “real jobs,” Bev and I climbed roofs and crawled through cellars to make the first hundred or so installations around the Island, fed by transmitters on the Inn, the Rec Center, the Boat Yard and at the Chebeague Transportation Company parking lot on Cousins Island.  Relay transmitters were used to reach the more remote parts of the Island.  For the more technically minded, our five T1 lines provided about 7.5 Mpbs to the Island, delivered to homes wirelessly at 900 mHz, and households could hope for almost 756 kbps in both upload and download speeds.  We were in heaven.  We could do e-mail and surf the web.  But that was before YouTube, Netflix, and AppleTV became so popular.  And it was before we had almost 200 customers sharing that 7.5 Mbps.

We knew faster speeds had to be obtained.  T1 lines just weren’t cutting it.  We again approached the phone company, FairPoint by now, but had no success procuring DSL service for the island.  But with assistance from Andy Hinkley of Cornerstone Communications (now MaineStream Internet) of Charleston, Maine, chebeague.net obtained a second ConnectME grant of $75,000 to bring bandwidth to the island via microwave. But we couldn’t find a suitable and affordable mainland transmission site.  That was until a chance meeting with Susan Corbett, president of Axiom Technologies, Machias, Maine, led us to Back Bay Tower in Portland and the establishment of a microwave link from there to Sam and Sally Ballard’s home on the west end of the Island, providing 20 Mbps.

From there eight telephone lines ran to a location next to Calder’s Clam Shack, across from the FairPoint telephone hut.  Two utility poles were erected and the equipment boxes for DSL gear were installed, supplying Internet service to Chebeague’s homes and businesses by way of FairPoint’s leased telephone lines.

So, by 2012, chebeague.net, Inc. had re-incorporated as chebeague.net, LLC and we could offer 6.0 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps up and again we were happy.  But because of the telephone lines supplying the service to the equipment boxes, we were limited to 10 Mbps.  The bottleneck had moved.  So we borrowed $34,000 from one of our investors (who later converted the loan to an increased equity position) and spent $43,000 to replace the two miles of telephone line with fiber optic cable installed by Tilson Technologies.  Our throughput immediately jumped to 20 Mbps.

But remember YouTube, Netflix, and AppleTV?  We needed more bandwidth and in short order increased it to 30 Mbps and then 35 Mbps, the limit of our microwave radio equipment at the time.  But even that was not enough to meet the growing demands of Islanders, both year-round and seasonal.

So in 2015, enriched by another sizable private investment, we went back to our friends at Axiom Technologies and upgraded our microwave equipment to handle up to 225 Mbps, currently delivering 100 Mbps to the Island, a long leap from the 7.5 Mbps we started with.  We also obtained ownership of our own IP addresses, paying $500 per year instead of $500 per month, which greatly helped to offset the increased bandwidth cost.

At about this time, we learned through the grapevine that FairPoint had received a grant from the Federal Communications Commission to run a fiber optic cable under Casco Bay to serve the island school and library with 100 Mbps service and “unserved locations and…locations with low speed Internet” with at least 3 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. 

We have had several communications with FairPoint Maine’s top executives, offering to share facilities (particularly the fiber optic cables) and work together to provide Island residents with the best and fastest Internet service possible. 

Over the past nine years we have invested almost $300,000, half from “investors,” half from taxpayers, and built a loyal customer base comprised of 87% of the year-round households and half of the seasonal residences.

We hope to be working with FairPoint to utilize the new fiber under the bay to increase the bandwidth available and to upgrade the copper wiring on the island to make internet available to the few residences who have not been able to enjoy DSL due to the lack of adequate FairPoint wiring to their locations.

In addition, we anxiously await the conclusions to be drawn from the Island Institute’s statewide study of broadband infrastructure on the islands, currently being conducted by Tilson Technologies.  Although we are proud of our contribution to the Island by crossing the digital divide and forever avoiding the pain of dial-up Internet service, there is still a long way to go.

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