Sullivan, Maine, Crosses the Digital Divide
A small town secures high-speed internet, thanks to an age-friendly volunteer who, almost literally, connected the wiring
This article comes out of the lessons learned and shared through the AARP Livable Communities Rural Lab, a monthly online gathering of leaders from rural and remote communities invited by AARP State Offices. Participants receive access to expert assistance and opportunities for connecting with peers nationwide.
ACTIVITIES AS OF APRIL 2021
The scheduled discussion topic for the monthly "Ask Age-Friendly" meeting in Sullivan, Maine, was high-speed internet — and the limited access to it for the coastal town's 1,250 residents.
Since the nation had just entered the COVID-19 shutdown, the March 2020 gathering was held virtually via Zoom. Many who wanted to attend couldn't because they didn’t have an internet connection. As the Zoom call began, nearly every participant's connection started breaking up.
AARP Maine, a leader in the Maine Broadband Coalition, worked with numerous organizations to garner support for Question 1, a statewide bond referendum on expanding affordable, reliable high-speed internet access to unserved and underserved areas of the state. An estimated 85,000 Maine residents do not have access to high-speed internet.
In 2020, more than 75 percent of voters in Maine voted to approve the referendum.
The bond mandates the investment of $15 million to improve access to high-speed internet with a $30 million match in federal and other funds, tripling the impact. Additional proposals are on the table to fully fund the state's broadband infrastructure needs.
Among the residents who succeeded in attending remotely was Don Snoke.
“Don has a background in high-speed internet,” says Candy Eaton, Sullivan’s age-friendly coordinator since before the town enrolled in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities in 2018. "After the meeting, he began contacting community members and instructed them how to conduct an internet speed test on their device.”
As Snoke began gathering the data, the results puzzled him. “Most people were connecting through DSL lines, their old-style telephone lines, getting one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half megabits per second,” he recalls. “People were getting terrible service yet I’m sitting with a cable line getting over 100 megabits.”
When Snoke asked the respondents why they hadn’t moved to cable, they told him they had tried but cable wasn’t available in their location.
Before his retirement, Snoke had spent 20 years in the computer networking industry. His work included helping to design and build five large internet data centers. Calling upon the hands-on skills he thought he had left behind, Snoke got into his car and drove along every paved roadway in Sullivan.
“Driving up and down roads, I could look at poles and cables and tell where there were provisions for cable service," he explains. "Some of the people who said they couldn’t get cable actually had a cable drop right in front of their driveway!”
When Snoke completed his survey, he discovered that close to 80 percent of Sullivan had been wired for high-speed internet but barely 10 percent of the households were using it.
Snoke’s next step was to try ordering cable services for the homes he had confirmed were wired. The response he received upon typing address after address into the cable company’s online order form: “Not available at your location.”
“That was an a-ha moment,” Snoke recalls. “The website was wrong. The cable company was chasing potential customers away with bad data.”
After taking photos of the houses with their addresses and nearby cable drops, Snoke set out to get his findings into the right hands. “I was trying to worm my way into the cable company through their legal department,” said Snoke. “As an individual subscriber, I had no standing to talk to the legal department. But if I were a representative of a committee in a town the company had a franchise in, that would give me the standing.”
Snoke next went to Sullivan’s select board with the data he had gathered. “Don brought in a whiteboard and a piece of cable he pulled apart to show the committee the interior lines that were fiber optics,” recalls Eaton, who was in the audience. “He described how the lines worked.” The select board appointed Snoke as the head of Sullivan’s Broadband Committee — a committee of one.
As part of its work to sustain Maine’s island and coastal communities, the Island Institute in Rockland published Community-Driven Broadband Process, a free 20-page guide to help communities access broadband.
Kendra Jo Grindle, who heads the institute’s broadband team, advises communities to, above all, begin the conversation: “Especially this past year, people are recognizing that a lack of broadband access is a community-wide problem — and it will take the community to help influence and inform the solution.”
Editor's Note: Also see the "Advice to Communities" box in "How Grayson County Is Getting Connected."
Official title in hand, Snoke met with the cable company, which after doing its own inspections confirmed Snoke’s findings — and uncovered the reason for the erroneous data.
“There’s a revolving door of cable companies, and every time a new one takes over, a lot of institutional memory drains away,” explains Snoke. “The last time the cable company had changed hands, the old cable company didn’t update its database of which streets had been wired. The new company couldn’t figure out why they couldn’t get better market penetration. I told them, ‘Your website is wrong!’”
As Sullivan’s residents began calling the company, trucks were sent out to do inspections, most of which resulted in installations. In a short period of time, 80 percent of Sullivan's residents gained access to high-speed internet.
The Progress, So Far
Snoke has since turned his attention to the remaining 20 percent. He spent a year asking the cable company to do engineering studies in order to extend services to unserved neighborhoods. When he finally got an answer, the cost was, he says, “astronomical.”
Soon after, a conversation with a cable representative in a nearby town resulted in another discovery when the rep said that unserved customers receive a $3,000 credit toward installation — and if they bundle with their neighbors, the combined credits often lead to free installation. “He mentioned that offhand,” Snoke emphasizes. “Like, ‘Of course everybody knows about it.’ Nobody in the sales department I talked to even knew about that option.”
“It took a lot of time on hold on the phone, but residents ultimately saved thousands of dollars,” explains Snoke, adding that his motivation was “to figure out a way to share the wealth and extend broadband technology to people in town. It drove me crackers that most of my neighbors couldn’t use broadband at all.”
“The age-friendly framework allowed Don to use us as focus groups to stay informed about problems that he could troubleshoot,” says Eaton. “The lack of high-speed internet was a problem. So having Don say, ‘I'm here, ready to do it’ was an amazing transformation for our community.” Eaton points out that Snoke has been working with other communities in the age-friendly network to share what Sullivan has learned and help them become more engaged through the advocacy of high-speed internet in their towns.
“This is something I haven't seen communities do before,” says Kendra Jo Grindle of the Island Institute (see sidebar), about Snoke's success for Sullivan. “Few communities have someone with the time or capacity, or just diligence, to deal with a provider that's just not interested in fully building out some of these last miles, streets and roads in a community. I've connected with Don a few times about his process, mostly to document it and model it, and make sure communities know it’s an option.”
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP)
A program of the Federal Communications Commission, the Emergency Broadband Benefit launched in May 2021 to help individuals and households that are struggling to afford internet service. Qualified applicants under the ACP receive a discount of up to $30 per month toward broadband service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying tribal lands.
Reporting by Amy Lennard Goehner
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