Somerville And Washington Maine Begin Fiber Network Construction

The towns of Somerville and Washington, Maine, have kickstarted their long-percolating efforts to deliver fiber broadband to both long-neglected rural municipalities.

In an update posted to both towns’ respective websites, officials say that the municipalities’ partner, Axiom Technologies, has begun construction on a dual-town fiber deployment funded by state and federal grants.

Somerville (est. pop. 600) and Washington (est. pop. 1,590) will be offering many local residents fiber access for the first time. Both of the deployments were made possible by a 2022 Broadband Infrastructure Program grant from the NTIA, coordinated via the ConnectMaine Authority (now part of the Maine Connectivity Authority).

Established in 2021, the MCA is a quasi-governmental agency funded through a combination of federal and state resources, and tasked with ensuring the even, equitable deployment of broadband access to all corners of the Pine Tree State. They’ll be playing a central role in the disbursement of the state’s $272 million upcoming BEAD subsidy awards.

Fiber, finally  

According to a Washington, Maine FAQ, the total cost of network deployment for the town was $2,913,919 ($2,622,527 from the NTIA, $291,392 from the state). The Somerville FAQ indicates that their segment of the network construction was $1,601,901 ($1,441,711 from the NTIA, $160,190 from the state).

Somerville residents will soon have the option of four tiers of broadband service: symmetrical 100 megabit per second (Mbps) service for $60 a month; symmetrical 250 Mbps service for $65 a month; symmetrical 500 Mbps service for $110 a month; and symmetrical 1 gigabit per second service (Gbps) for $130 a month.

Meanwhile, residents of the town of Washington have the option of five, slightly different tiers of service: symmetrical 50 Mbps service for $50 a month; symmetrical 100 Mbps service for $60 a month; symmetrical 250 Mbps service for $100 a month; symmetrical 500 Mbps service for $130 a month; and symmetrical gigabit service for $170 a month.

In both towns, users will see no broadband usage caps, hidden fees, or long-term contracts. Axiom will charge subscribers a $60 activation fee, which will be waived if users indicated their interest before July 15.

In Somerville, however, the installation fee for low-income homes will be waived entirely.

The speeds and pricing are a significant step up from existing offerings in both towns. And while the FCC’s notoriously unreliable broadband maps claim both towns are awash with options, locals are lucky to have access to dated expensive DSL or costly, usage-capped satellite broadband – assuming they have access to anything at all.  

“A lot of people are really desperate,” Sharon Reishus, chair of the Somerville Municipal Broadband Board recently told The Lincoln County News. “We’re really trying to provide a public service … Internet [access] is a necessity, it’s not a luxury.”

Somerville wins utility pole standoff with Consolidated Communications

Like so many smaller U.S. towns, Somerville saw little in the way of meaningful interest from giant broadband providers. At least not until the town decided to take matters into its own hands and build their own broadband networks.

The Somerville website outlines how it didn’t take long for Charter (Spectrum) to file a costly challenge to 20 of the grant’s target locations simply because the cable giant offered spotty broadband access in nearby Jefferson, Maine.

“This is an action of bad faith on Spectrum’s part since they challenged our serving those locations knowing that they do not serve any Somerville roads in those census blocks,” officials said.

Somerville Maine town office

ILSR has written extensively about the cable company’s efforts to bog down community grant applications in costly bureaucratic challenges. In 2022, Charter was exposed for creating a fake consumer group in Maine custom-built to mislead local voters about the benefits of community-owned and operated broadband networks.

In addition to headaches from Charter, Somerville also found its utility pole “make ready” requests challenged before the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) by local telecom Consolidated Communications, which claimed that requiring that it pay for preparation work on its own utility poles somehow violated the state constitution.

Under Maine law (Title 35-A §2524), it’s the obligation of utility-pole owners to fund make-ready work for fiber deployment in underserved service areas at their own expense. Consolidated attempted to claim they shouldn’t have to pay for the work, though the Maine PUC recently ruled in favor of the town (though the PUC did not rule on Consolidated claims of constitutionality).

“Historically, the commission has declined to address constitutional issues, recognizing that we are a statutorily created, quasi-judicial agency and that constitutional issues are best addressed by courts of law,” Maine PUC Commissioner Philip Bartlett stated on June 11. “I see no reason to deviate from this approach in this case.”

Reishus tells the Lincoln County News she suspects Consolidated will attempt to take its case to the Maine Supreme Court, and notes that this summer’s construction has only made it this far because Somerville has been paying, “under protest,” for the make-ready work to proceed while the Maine Public Utilities Commission proceedings have been taking place.

Maine with logo over state

“A court battle between the Maine Attorney General and the utility could cause months or years of delay to the make ready we need,” the Somerville website notes. “We cannot allow that delay. Being aware of this potential, we made sure the costs for make ready were in the RFI, and thus the grant, which would reimburse Somerville if we borrow the money to pay for make ready under protest, to get the utilities to proceed.”

Entrenched incumbent providers have often used the pole attachment process to bog municipal broadband and other competitive deployments down in bureaucracy, perhaps best exemplified by AT&T’s lawsuit against Google Fiber after it attempted an expansion into Louisville, Kentucky.

Somerville says progress continues all the same, and should Consolidated win its case before the Supreme Court, those added pole attachment costs, and the resulting legal tangle, would be managed by the state, not the town.

This article was originally posted by Community Broadband Networks Initiative Institute for Local Self Reliance on June 20, 2024, and is reprinted with permission.