South Portland partners for benchmark Internet service

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The city on Monday announced a partnership with Biddeford-based GWI to provide high-speed Internet service to city offices, businesses, and eventually residents.

Trevor Jones, director of marketing and product development for GWI, said installation of about four miles of fiber-optic cable between utility poles will commence within the next few weeks.

The cables will create a new network that will allow the transmission of 1,000 megabits of data per second; according to a GWI press release, it’s currently not uncommon for Internet download speeds in Maine to average only 15 megabits per second. The network will also be “symmetrical,” meaning that upload and download speeds will be equivalent. 

The first segment of the three-phase project will focus on providing service to municipal buildings on Highland Avenue, Broadway, Waterman Drive, and Ocean Avenue.

Through this phase, the South Portland Recreation Center, South Portland High School, Public Library, City Hall, Water Department, Public Safety Department, Daniel F. Mahoney Middle School and Mill Creek Shopping Center will be connected.

Jones estimated this phase will be complete within six months. He said GWI is working to secure utility pole space for the project.

Phase two of the network installation will cover Western Avenue, Westbrook Street, and Wescott Road, and will connect the fire station on James Baka Drive, Municipal Golf Course, Memorial Middle School, the Waldo T. Skillin Elementary School, and the Western Avenue Crossing Shopping Center.

The third phase would include expansion beyond these areas.

The city is leasing the fiber from GWI for a one-time payment of $150,000. South Portland will serve as an anchor tenant, GWI Chief Executive Officer Fletcher Kittredge said. GWI will foot part of the approximate $350,000 bill for the fiber itself and other equipment.

The company will also invest $20,000 to connect its own network. The tenancy and customers will eventually pay for a little under half of this investment.

The city’s $150,000 price tag covers maintenance and repair for the duration of the fiber’s estimated life, which is approximately 20 years, and includes the assurance that service costs will be affordable for residents. In addition, GWI will share a portion of its revenue from the cable with the city.

“This is really a great day for economic development in the city of South Portland and the state of Maine,” Chris Dumais, South Portland information technology director, said. “This project really started as a small, simple need. We had a need to connect municipal buildings and school buildings, to further connect them on a more reliable, stable network, but also one that would last us for another 20-plus years.”

The original request for proposals focused solely on municipal buildings. However, a residential provision was later added, meaning that residents will also be able to take advantage of the cable installation and GWI service.

Residents will also be able to choose providers other than GWI, because the network will provide open access.

However, the open access stipulation might have deterred possible vendors, Dumais said. Although the RFP was sent out to 20 IT and telecomm vendors, the city received only two responses.

This also suggests that outside companies might not feel that servicing Maine is a worthwhile investment, several speakers at the City Hall press conference said. Kittredge said Maine’s Internet infrastructure puts the state at a competitive disadvantage.

According to recent reports, Maine’s Internet service is at the bottom of the barrel: Ookla NetMetrics, a Montana-based firm, ranked Maine 49th of the 50 states in terms of access and quality, and the National Broadband Map, a joint product of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Communications Commission ranked the state 42nd  in terms of speed, 45th in terms of access to various types of technology, and 47th in wireless access.

The city is hoping to be one of the first municipalities to alter this reality, and it will likely have to do it alone.

Kittredge said he does not expect that state or federal assistance for infrastructure will be provided anytime soon. It is up to individual cities and towns.

“I think it’s going to be a long time before we see significant federal dollars here,” Kittredge said. “Fortunately, we have a long history of self-reliance and Yankee ingenuity.”

South Portland Mayor Jerry Jalbert said that he expects the network to provide a boost for the city, and expressed optimism about the project’s prospects.

“We are a technology driven world and this infrastructure is a very, very important step for us,” Jalbert said. “This is one of our opportunities that we can attract and retain businesses, but we can also attract and retain people. Residents, regardless of what their walk of life might be, have ever increasing need for technology. They need high-speed Internet to make that happen.”

Lily O’Gara can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Lily on Twitter: @lilyog28.