Rockport, Maine, population 3,321, is trying to solve the existential dilemma of small-town America: How do you get people like Meg Weston’s students to stick around?
Weston is the president of Maine Media Workshops + College, one of Rockport’s primary economic drivers. When she took office in 2012, she saw that the college couldn’t survive without a better Internet connection. Her students needed to upload and download enormous digital files using three or more devices each; she says the school hit a wall with its existing communications capacity.
The town’s Internet access connection didn’t have enough room to handle the school’s demands, and private companies would charge too much to be a realistic option.
That is, until this week, when Rockport opened its own gigabit-scale municipal fiber-optic network — meaning it can transmit a thousand megabits of data a second. Weston is jubilant: Given the inexpensive, world-class connectivity, she can make the school’s courses available to people in other states and countries — and persuade her students to make a life in Maine.
Rockport’s new gigabit network is a big deal. It is the first such network in Maine, and as Sen. Angus King said at its opening, fiber is essential: “Internet service in my opinion is exactly like water; it’s exactly like electricity. It is a public utility that is necessary in order for our country and our economy to flourish.”
Most important, the Rockport network provides a replicable model for towns and cities across the country. Creating jobs and competing with other countries depend on ubiquitous, inexpensive fiber connectivity, so we need all the help we can get.
Weston, along with Jeff Letourneau of Networkmaine (a program of the University of Maine), came up with $30,000. They persuaded the town board to chip in $30,000 in unused town tax funds to its communications infrastructure. The money went to stringing fiber along poles in downtown Rockport.
And then the town-owned network, built and operated by a private contractor, was connected to a 1,100-mile statewide fiber network — called the Three Ring Binder — built with $25 million in federal stimulus money and about $7 million from private investors. Those funds, in turn, were conditioned on making available reasonably priced, nondiscriminatory access points between the Three Ring Binder and networks like the one Rockport has built. Twenty states have laws that raise barriers to municipal networks, but self-reliant Maine isn’t one of them.
Rockport’s town-owned gigabit network doesn’t directly serve subscribers, which means Rockport isn’t competing in the private market. Instead, the town is making its network — made up of so-called dark fiber, which carries a potentially unlimited amount of communications data — available to any private service provider.
A company called GWI stepped up, and will soon be selling gigabit services to Rockport’s business for $70 a month. At that rate, many can take advantage of it, and hopefully find new business opportunities as a result. As King put it, “We want to work where we live, rather than live where we work.”
Right now, most American businesses have no choice other than their local monopoly cable operator for high-capacity Internet connections. Time Warner Cable, for example, charges $70 a month for Internet access service that downloads 20 times slower and uploads 200 times slower than the network Rockport will now enjoy.
Every American hamlet, town, and city needs to upgrade its residential and business networks to inexpensive fiber-optic connections. And we need choices. Right now, we do not have a plan for this upgrade, and existing private carriers have little incentive to change the status quo. Rockport shows that we can get there from here.
Susan Crawford, the John A. Reilly visiting professor in intellectual property at Harvard Law School, is the author of “Captive Audience.”