July 16, 2020

Expert questions Internet bond issue

Peter Brown is all for the information superhighway. He’s just not sure whether all the on-ramps being proposed for it in Maine are necessary or wise.

Only a few days before voters will be asked to approve a $15 million telecommunications bond package, this free-lance writer who covers the satellite industry said he’s rethinking his position on the bond issue. And he wants others to rethink the issue as well.

A resident of Mount Desert Island, Brown said the state may be too hastily building access to the superhighway at the expense of taxpayers.

Up until earlier this week, Brown had been “dead set” in favor of the bond issue facing voters Nov. 7, he said. That changed Tuesday when AT&T announced it will spend $150 million to link schools across the country with the Internet.

Although the proposals are very different — the Question 3 bond issue would buy computers and other hardware and AT&T would provide the access to the Internet — Brown said AT&T’s announcement raises questions about whether there is a method to telecommunications development in the state.

NYNEX, for example, is involved in developing an advanced system to be used with the equipment purchased through the bond issue. Every Maine high school and a select number of libraries would be connected and could transmit high-speed video and data through this project, called the Maine Information Highway project.

And the regional telephone company is also involved in establishing a system linking every school and library on a slower-speed system used for data transmission only. NYNEX proposes investing $28 million over seven years, athough the project still needs state approval. The Public Utilities Commission is expected to make a decision on the project in mid-December.

With cable operators already providing programs in many Maine classrooms and now long-distance carriers like AT&T also expressing strong interest in telecommunications, Brown said there hasn’t been sufficient talk about coordination, particularly when $15 million in public money is involved.

“I’m just scratching my head,” said Brown, who is a contributing editor to Satellite Retailer, the industry’s oldest monthly trade publication.

Brown is suggesting that the bonds not be issued to pay for the computer hardware and that, instead, NYNEX take $15 million of its proposed $28 million investment and buy the equipment. AT&T would then be able to provide its services in conjunction with NYNEX.

“I want to do it and I want to get there, but I want to make sure we are doing it in the proper fashion,” said Brown, who acknowledged that his stance and the timing of his criticism may not make him popular in a state where there seems to be little opposition to the telecommunications bond issue.

Where Brown sees a potential free-for-all, state and NYNEX officials see consensus.

“It clearly shows the direction that this country is going in,” said Jim McCarthy, NYNEX’s district sales manager for Maine.

And Thomas Welch, chairman of the PUC, said proposals put forth by AT&T and others complement efforts under way and support the increasing emphasis on children having and using access to technology.

“There’s no more important issue for our kids than persuading our kids that there is a universe beyond the end of their noses,” Welch said.

McCarthy also has concerns about the compatibility between AT&T’s proposal and what NYNEX will be providing, and between AT&T’s plan and what Maine school children will need.

AT&T didn’t have details on what share of the $150 million Maine schools would get, but McCarthy estimated Maine’s share would amount to only $1.5 million, a figure that could quickly be gobbled up by Maine school-children. And AT&T would use existing copper cables for its dial-up service, which can transmit only at most about 28,800 bits per second. He compared that with the 56,000 to 1.5 million bits per second suggested for the NYNEX system. Cable operators can also transmit up to 10 million bits per second, he said.

“Will dial-up be anything near what our schools need for the Internet access?,” said McCarthy. “I suggest not.

“I don’t see anything in the AT&T proposal accommodating huge amounts of traffic coming on line when every school and library is connected to the Internet.”

AT&T spokesman Jim McGann said he was unaware of NYNEX’s proposal but suggested that the AT&T project could work with or as a competitor to NYNEX, giving schools a choice of Internet programs. AT&T is offering the dial-up service as well as software to browse on the Internet and 100 hours of free Internet use.

Tom LaPointe, a member of the Citizens to Keep Maine Competitive, which promotes the bond issue, argues that voting against Question 3 based on AT&T’s proposal doesn’t make good public policy. He said the AT&T’s proposal has only been out for a few days and has not been reviewed to see if or how it fits with telecommunications development in Maine.

Also, passage of the bond issue wouldn’t require state authorities to spend the full $15 million should a subsequent review find lower levels of funding were necessary, LaPointe said.

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