Chebeague Internet provider seeks funds to improve service
CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — Only 10 miles from Maine's largest city, Chebeague Island remains wanting when it comes to broadband Internet service and cell phone access, David Hill said Monday.
Hill and sister-in-law and fellow Chebeague resident Beverly Johnson founded chebeague.net a few years ago and brought broadband service to the island, an upgrade from dial-up service. To expand and strengthen that service, they are seeking $75,000 in loans and more than $73,000 in federal grant money through a "broadband stimulus" program.
Ideally they would like to get $150,000 in grant funds, Hill said. With a $50,000 match from chebeague.net, in-kind contributions and other sources, the funding would provide the $200,000 necessary to improve the island's Internet coverage.
"We did apply for the grant and loan money," Hill said, adding that he has been told that "you apply for a loan, and if you can't get the loan, then you get the grant money."
Chebeague.net has installed high-speed T1 Internet lines at the Chebeague Island Inn, the Chebeague Recreation Center and the Chebeague Island Boat Yard.
"The idea was that from those three places we could hit the whole island," Hill said. "And what we discovered was that we really can't hit the whole island from these places in its entirety because of the topography, because of the woods, because of the terrain, basically. It's called ‘near line of sight' technology, which means you don't have to be able to see the antenna, but you do have to have a straight shot to the antenna. It doesn't go through granite, and it doesn't go through heavy woods."
In the past few years, chebeague.net has made about 160 installations around the island, which covers many of the year-round residents.
"Of the year-round residents, we're up to about 75 percent (who) have broadband, which indicates really how important it is when you live on an island to have that. And that final 25 percent want it, with a couple of exceptions. But for the most part it's in high demand and ... really necessary."
In addition to geographical issues, the existing lines were being overloaded, Hill said, which slowed them down.
He explained that chebeague.net would like to install one antenna tower in the center of the island, on town land. "The purpose of that tower would not only be to distribute our broadband signal, but to enable us to receive a microwave broadband instead of the T1s," Hill said, adding that the upgrade would significantly boost the signal's bandwidth.
The tower would be able to reach more households, Hill said. A secondary tower, now in storage, could also stand at the recreation center to transmit around the west end of the island.
Hill also hopes a cellular phone company will install a transmitter on the tower to improve access around the island. The side of the island facing the mainland can get reception, while that facing the ocean is less fortunate, he said.
Cumberland County is also looking for a relay tower for its public safety services, and it has determined that Chebeague is a good location, Hill said.
The tower would have to go an approval process through the town, which became independent from Cumberland in 2007. "We didn't really want to start it until we could say ‘here are the bucks, we're ready to go,'" Hill said.
He is on the Board of Selectmen and expects to recuse himself from any vote on the endeavor.
Still, Hill said, "I really think it should not be a problem to get that local approval given the importance of that tower."
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or email@example.com.