Southport to vote on community broadband

Mon, 04/05/2021 - 7:15am

    The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us all in many and varied ways. Not least has been the shift to “remote” – remote learning, remote working, remote family. And for all that remoteness, the world has depended on one underlying tool: the internet.

    For many people on Southport, internet service has been a concern for several years. For those households on or near the main arterial roads, the service has been adequate. For others, it has not.

    Maureen Kinsey lives on Cross Road. For four years, she has tried to get her DSL connection upgraded to provide adequate bandwith for everyday online communication. “I live a half mile from the main road,” she said. “And even though there are 18 households on my road all asking for better broadband access, our providers have consistently refused to upgrade us unless we’re prepared to pay thousands of dollars.”

    The lack of broadband at the Kinsey house means dropped connections during online meetings, no streaming videos, and only one device in use at a time. “My grandson will be here for four weeks this summer,” said Kinsey. “My daughter would like to come, too. She would work remotely but because we don’t have adequate broadband service she can’t do that.”

    Kinsey’s story is not unique. Three years ago, the town authorized the establishment of the Southport Community Broadband Committee to investigate the options for future Internet needs.

    Those on the committee were not all techno-savvy. Member Smith Climo confessed, “At the outset I barely knew a gig from a fig! But the more we’ve delved, the more I’ve understood that for Southport to be out in front technologically and not lagging behind, we have to take matters in hand. Southport has always been forward thinking,” he continued. “We brought town water to the island, installed solar, acquired the beach for future generations. Now we’re tackling our internet needs.”

    “There have been two focuses for our investigation,” said member Adam Shepherd. “Reliable technology and network ownership.” He said there are households with reasonable broadband service. “But it won’t be great 10 years from now. Much of the equipment is already outdated and even if it doesn’t fail it won’t keep up with technological advances. For the future we need to bring in fiber optics.”

    The committee says no current providers are willing to invest in upgrading Southport’s internet access to a full fiber-optic network that would serve the whole island. “We’re too distant, too small, and too spread out,” said Shepherd. “There’s no financial incentive for them.”

    After extensive research funded by grants and matching town funds, the committee has concluded the answer lies in a community-owned, fiber-to-the-home system with which the town could guarantee affordable access to every house, regardless of location. Such a service is already planned for neighboring towns Georgetown, Arrowsic and Monhegan.

    “Ours is an aging community,” said Shepherd. “When the infrastructure fails we have elderly residents who are cut off. Right now Spectrum has little incentive to come out and fix one line after a power outage, but if the provider is answerable to the whole community it’s a different story.”

    Climo added, “State-of-the-art internet will attract more younger families. It will facilitate remote working, expand educational opportunities, and make telemedicine real. It will raise property values. It will bring Southport to the world. I’m proud to be part of a community that has the option to choose something that will have a positive impact for everyone.

    After three years of hard work, the committee is ready to give its findings to the people and ask them to vote in support of “reliable, affordable, equal access to the internet for all Southporters.” That vote will take place by referendum ballot, Friday, May 7 at a special town meeting. Prior to that, there will be a series of outdoor in-person informational sessions and some online meetings.

    The first meeting is outside Southport Town Hall at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 10.

    For more information on the project and the upcoming informational opportunities, email southportcommunitybroadband@gmail.com or call (207) 217-7743.