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By Lori Valigra, BDN Staff
A planned broadband cable that would run through rural areas of western Maine promises to bring high-speed internet access to large, underserved areas of the state, but it could take awhile.
The broadband cable would be strung as part of the controversial New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC, hydropower project by Central Maine Power and Hydro-Quebec that would run from Canada to Lewiston. The NECEC project still must gain key permits and approvals, which developers hope will happen by the end of this year.
If the NECEC gets the go-ahead from all parties, it would become operational in 2022, which, as planned, is when the broadband also would be ready for use. The hydroelectric project would use some strands of the broadband fiber for operations, with the rest available to communities that abut it.
CMP already has laid out its vision of how the towns along the corridor would tap into the cable, along with options for how they could pay for those connections.
“This project has a strategic role. It is running through major areas where the state doesn’t have fiber-optic broadband,” said Thorn Dickinson, vice president of business development at Avangrid, CMP’s parent company.
Underserved areas include the Forks and large parts of Androscoggin and Somerset counties, where opposition to the controversial plan has been strongest. The project’s developers included money for rural broadband upgrades as part of a sweetened benefits package that swayed Gov. Janet Mills, Public Advocate Barry Hobbins and some environmental groups to support NECEC.
Not a ‘profit center’
Dickinson said the company is willing to negotiate with towns on how to connect to the network.
“We’re not interested in this being a profit center for the [NECEC] project or in getting money back,” he said. “We want this to be an asset to the people of Maine.”
The broadband cable also would run along a new transmission pathway from Windsor to Wiscasset and a rebuilt transmission line from Lewiston to Pownal.
A broadband network consists of a main fiber-optic backbone transmission line, a “middle mile” portion to which internet service providers connect their own networks and a “last mile” portion in which internet companies connect their network to homes and businesses.
The closer the broadband cable comes to a community, the cheaper it is to bring it to homes and businesses.
The NECEC broadband would include a speedy fiber-optic backbone transmission line and splice locations at which internet service providers could connect. The middle and last miles would be run by internet service providers or public-private partnerships.
Many locations in Maine that have internet access to date do so through slow copper wire telephone landlines, or faster cable or satellite television connections.
Dickinson said not every town along the hydropower corridor has taken him up on his offer to talk about access to broadband. One that has is Whitefield, a town in the Windsor to Wiscasset branch of the proposed broadband network.
“There is an eagerness for faster internet,” said Louis Sell, chairman of the Whitefield Economic Development Committee, which has had three discussions with CMP about the broadband project.
“We are not as disadvantaged as some rural communities, especially up north,” he said. “But we’d like to have some competition with internet service providers.”
Half of the town, some 25 miles, is covered by Spectrum cable internet. Other parts use a telephone copper wire connection. Sell said the new broadband line could improve broadband internet access and cellphone reception in the town.
The NECEC broadband backbone would have connections at five roads in Whitefield. It also would connect to the state’s Three Ring Binder backbone in Wiscasset, one of two planned connections to that network.
The Three Ring Binder internet project, completed in 2012, spans Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Boston. It encompasses three interconnecting circles that run through rural western, eastern and northern Maine from Fort Kent to Biddeford.
Deputy Town Clerk Carman Douglas said Whitefield, unlike many other towns along the hydropower corridor, has not voted on whether to support the NECEC hydropower transmission line.
Who foots the bill?
The NECEC project passed its first big hurdle April 11 when the Maine Public Utilities Commission granted it a permit.
That approval included a stipulation submitted to the PUC on Feb. 21 and contained added benefits, including $15 million for broadband, to make the project more appealing to Mainers who thought they were not benefiting enough from it.
Of that, $5 million will come from NECEC LLC, a separate company CMP created to run the hydropower project. The other $10 million is from Hydro-Quebec.
CMP and Hydro-Quebec are collaborating on the $1 billion project to bring hydropower through a corridor in western Maine to Lewiston. That line is being paid for by Massachusetts to meet that state’s clean energy goals.
NECEC LLC will establish the $10 million NECEC Broadband Fund in consultation with ConnectME, appointees representing Mills and Hobbins, and Hydro-Quebec US.
Details still are being worked out about how the group will collaborate and disburse the funds.
“We haven’t had the ‘how’s this work’ conversation yet. There are other things that need to happen before we figure out the structure,” said Peggy Schaffer, director of the ConnectME Authority, the state’s organization that is charged with spreading broadband access to underserved areas.
She said broadband is unregulated, so the project won’t have to register as a telecommunications utility.
Hydro-Quebec US will make five annual contributions of $2 million each to the fund, starting when the project is scheduled to begin commercial operations in 2022.
A maximum of $2 million could go to the high-speed connection between Maine and Montreal.
The rest will go toward establishing public/private partnerships to get the broadband to the communities. It also will go toward pole license fees or costs to make utility poles ready.
Schaffer said she does not know how much it will cost CMP to build its infrastructure but that the last mile build out of broadband networks can run anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 per mile.
The fund will provide grants to help implement and maintain the high-speed broadband infrastructure in the communities through which the NECEC transmission facilities run.
Splicing into the network
The NECEC project will string fiber-optic broadband for 189 miles. While CMP has a basic plan of how the broadband network could be laid out, the company could be flexible and make some changes, Avangrid’s Dickinson said.
According to current plans, the broadband network will run along the 145-mile hydropower corridor from Canada to Lewiston, plus along another 16.1 miles from Lewiston to Pownal and 26.5 miles from Windsor to Wiscasset.
CMP said the broadband will go through 39 communities and have connection points, or splices in 95 locations, generally at road crossings.
The NECEC broadband and its extensions would cross the Three Ring Binder at Route 43 in Starks and at Route 1 in Wiscasset.
In the first 145 mile-plus stretch of the corridor from Beatie Township along the Canadian border to Lewiston, CMP will run two redundant optical ground wire cables with 36 fibers each to total 72 fibers.
Optical ground wire cables typically are used by electric utilities because they function to both ground the cable and run communications through it. Fiber-optic cables, which carry more information than metal cables, can have from 12 to 200 fibers, or glass threads. Each fiber can transmit messages at high speed over light waves.
That stretch of cable will go to 29 communities and have 69 splice access locations. The average splice location will occur every 2.1 miles.
In the extended area from Lewiston to Pownal, CMP will install one optical ground wire through the full 16.1 miles with 72 fibers per cable. Another wire with 36 fibers will run for 9.3 miles.
The broadband will go through four communities and have 11 splice access locations. The average distance between splices is expected to be 1.4 miles.
The final section of broadband will run from Windsor to Wiscasset. The single cable, with 72 fibers, will run through five communities and have 15 slice locations an average of 1.7 miles apart.
“We are not charging for access,” Dickinson said. “We are making the fiber-optic network available, with the $10 million additional benefit. The market can then pick up the connections.”