For Maine Islands, Internet Means Opportunity
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
If you've ever dreamed of moving to an idyllic vacation spot, Maine's coastal islands offer a cautionary tale. Jobs are limited to lobstering, boatbuilding and caretaking of summer residences. And lousy Internet service makes telecommuting difficult to impossible. But now some Maine lobstermen and would-be telecommuters are banding together to pay for costly infrastructure they hope will help preserve a threatened way of life. From Maine Public Radio, Fred Bever reports.
FRED BEVER, BYLINE: Summertime in the Cranberry Isles, a couple miles seaward from Acadia National Park, feels pretty idyllic.
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BEVER: Sunshine bounces from the water and backlights the lobster boats and ferries that shuttle around. Constant water traffic keeps the islands physically connected. But residents at the Great Cranberry Island Country Store (ph) worry about a different kind of connection, Internet connection.
SAMUEL DONALD: It's incredibly slow.
BEVER: Samuel Donald manages a local boatyard. Two Internet companies provide service to Great Cranberry and to Islesford next door. But Donald says the technology is so outdated, the bandwidth so narrow that at best, service hovers at a glacial speed of 1 megabit per second.
DONALD: And it's weather dependent. So if there's fog or rain or, you know, it's dark out or whatever, it's just - it doesn't work (laughter) as well.
BEVER: Internet companies haven't been keen to make costly improvements for remote locations like this, so now Cranberry Islanders are ready to dig deep for new fiber optic lines and a microwave system that will beam data around the archipelago at true broadband speeds. The upgrade can't come soon enough for Kelly Sanborn. She once tried telecommuting from her house out on the island's edge as a medical transcriptionist. Her daughter Jessica's online homework sometimes took a back seat.
JESSICA SANBORN: When it was just me on the Internet, it was pretty fast. But when more than one of us was using it, it went pretty slow.
KELLY SANBORN: What happens when I went to work on the computer?
J SANBORN: She takes all of the Internet. She unplugs it and plugs it into her computer.
K SANBORN: I turn off the Wi-Fi...
K SANBORN: ...So no one else can touch it.
BEVER: And when summer people compete for the island's limited bandwidth, connections slow to a subcrawl. When that buffering wheel of death appeared on her screen, Sanborn says, she saw dollars spinning away. She gave up medical transcription.
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BEVER: But workarounds can be found.
ROSALIE KELL: My life is sitting in front of a computer.
BEVER: Rosalie Kell, administrator for an international service mission, is one of several islanders who routinely set up laptops on the local library's porch to tap into its Internet Wi-Fi, which is the fastest on the island. Kell's been a leader in the effort to bring all the isle's households up to speed.
KELL: It's about lifestyle and culture and preserving cultures in a way that would not happen if we don't keep up with the 21st century.
BEVER: At the turn of the 20th century, there were 200 main islands with year-round residents. That's dwindled to 15 now. The Internet project is one of several efforts to boost numbers on the Cranberries, where it was a big deal this spring when three students graduated from eighth grade. That was the most in 20 years.
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BEVER: It doesn't hurt that Maine's lobster industry is booming. A quick ferry ride over to Islesford's Hadlock Cove finds an eighth-generation lobsterman Nick Hadlock shoveling herring inside a work shed while his 4-year-old looks on.
NICK HADLOCK: I fish 800 traps. That's the limit for the state of Maine.
BEVER: Internet service here, Hadlock notes, is even worse than on Great Cranberry. So he supports the $1.2 million dollar bond voters approved to get the project moving. He's hoping that a big grant application succeeds, letting property tax payers off the hook. But if they do have to go to the well, Hadlock says, it's justified.
HADLOCK: Keeps them on the islands other than going off on a ferry back and forth and helps out actually, you know, raising kids and stuff. You know, more of their parents could stay at home and do their job right from there.
BEVER: It's a necessity, he says. And if all goes well, most homes on the Cranberry Isles should have high-speed Internet within a year.
For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever in Portland, Maine.