July 08, 2020

Educators push for expansion of Maine broadband

Editor’s Note: This is the 10th in a multipart series about the availability of broadband Internet service in Maine.

Maine’s research and academic communities are perhaps the most vocal proponents for expanding the reach of broadband beyond the population centers where it is now available.

Gerry Dube is the former director of UNET Technology Services for the University of Maine System and now an associate professor of computer science at UM. He was a member of the Governor’s Broadband Access Infrastructure Board.

He is watching the steady deployment of next-generation extremely high-speed Internet networks, including Internet2, which has been in operation for years, and the New England Research and Education Network. These networks link universities, research institutes and government laboratories.

“We participated in the original [NEREN] Request For Proposals, but there were no viable responses from the northern three states. The result is that a contract was written to lease fiber from New York through Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts,” said Dube. “This will allow them to hook into the national network.”

In northern New England, Dube labels the new North-Link initiative in Vermont as well worth watching. There, a nonprofit organization known as Northern Enterprises Inc. is making plans to deploy a fiber-optic network extending over 400 miles of northern Vermont.

“This effort is not limited to education and research, but to any commercial concern as well. In my opinion, this is a great model for Maine, an investment that benefits all, especially economic development,” said Dube.

Dube was involved in development of a statewide network supporting education and research along with the Maine School and Library Network. He strongly supports the use of substantial public investment to provide incentives and funding for key broadband projects and to fund demonstration expansion projects.

“Without this public support, I believe broadband access beyond certain distances of a central office [the termination point for phone company fiber-optic lines from which Internet and phone signals pass over copper wire to user locations] or locations passed by cable television will not occur or will happen slowly and sporadically,” Dube said.

“The primary reason is that the density of population in those areas will not attract expansion without some incentive.”

Dube is concerned that the pace of this process makes it difficult to realize any substantial gains in the near future, that the inadequacy of initial funding will have little meaningful impact on broadband expansion, and that the emphasis so far has been focused on residential and small-business access, while the education and research communities that require much greater broadband access have not been treated as a high-priority concern in this initiative.

“Although the focus of the BAIB and the Wireless committees has been on individual or small-business access, we have tried to emphasize the need for a different [form of ] broadband for education and research.

“Current technology used for home access, cable and DSL is not sufficient for education and research, not even for K-12,” said Dube.

“Many school districts provide distance education using various forms of video; others provide services to their districts. In that way they become providers of services and not simply consumers of services.”

Dube estimates that UMS requires bandwidth approaching at least 1 gigabit per second all the way to Boston, where all the services are readily available, and that this same level of service will be required to each UMS campus in the relatively near future, but that is not available in most places.

“A few years ago, the campuses were adequately served. As demand has increased a number are now at their capacity, and expansion is necessary. While it is possible to increase some of them within the current technology, the lead time is usually high [six months] and of course the cost has not changed in 10 years, making it difficult to expand within limited budgets,” said Dube. “But one of the bigger problems is to obtain adequate bandwidth in the backbone of the network, the Orono-Augusta-Portland-Boston spine.”

For Scott McNeil, chief information officer at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, the ability of this cutting-edge, not-for-profit biomedical research institute to accelerate discovery that will improve human health around the world is firmly linked to the network infrastructure maintained by UMS. In fact, the UMS network carries the data traffic generated by the lab.

“As our research technology has become increasingly advanced and complex, we are generating reams of information that are useful to researchers at all corners of the globe,” said McNeil.

“Today, the way researchers access that is via the Internet, and the only way we can continue to meet their needs and get our message out is if we have the bandwidth necessary to do it. While there is sufficient bandwidth to Boston and to most major metropolitan areas, this does not necessarily help us. Before we get to the major metro areas, we have to first get to Bangor, Portland and then to Boston. From a national perspective, bandwidth runs from the East Coast to the West Coast, and north to south, but misses many rural areas, especially in Maine.”

Broadband access, or the lack thereof, is definitely a work force issue for the lab.

“We are affected both personally and professionally by having limited access to broadband from our homes as well as from outside the lab,” said McNeil. “As time moves on, there are more creative solutions out there, particularly in the wireless arena, that will alleviate many of our on-campus connectivity issues.”

Both the state strategy and the lab’s strategy for increased availability and increased bandwidth have a common goal, which is to enable the collaborative sharing of ideas and information. “The state is starting to recognize that this is a very key economic issue. We need to do all we can to facilitate affordable connectivity in order to help the research and businesses already in Maine, and to attract new opportunities to our state,” said McNeil.

Jackson Lab has installed wireless access points throughout its campuses and has started to use commercial wireless broadband for employees who travel frequently. McNeil sees the increase in wireless options as extremely helpful, particularly for end users in remote locations, at home or away from the office.

“We have implemented a Cisco wireless solution [at the lab] using their AirSpace controllers and wireless access points. This solution enables us to monitor each device and reroute traffic to other devices at times of high-volume access in specific areas,” said McNeil.

In addition, the lab is looking at very high-speed wireless bandwidth solutions that operate at greater than 100 megabits per second to connect to the UMS backbone.

“This serves two purposes. First, it enables us to have an alternate connectivity route [as opposed] to the single route off the island now [also linked to the UMS backbone], and second, it can immediately increase our bandwidth without having to build the hard-line or wired infrastructure which is needed for our very high bandwidth needs involving bandwidth transmission capacity above 1 gigabit per second,” said McNeil.

Satellite technology, for example, has not been included at the lab in the past because of its performance problems and the time-consuming efforts needed to maintain it. Thanks to advances in technology, however, satellite will play a major role in the lab’s future, according to McNeil.

Next: Adelphia’s cable customers in Maine soon will have Time-Warner Cable as their service provider. This could have a tremendous impact on the future of broadband in the state.

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