At 17.78 megabytes per second, Maine ranks dead last in average download speeds — 51st in the nation when you include Washington, D.C. —  according to the leading broadband testing and web-based network diagnostics company Ookla, operators of Belfast clocks in at a slow 9.4 Mbps., a service that compiles government and proprietary data to help consumers navigate their options in broadband service, lists Maine's average download speed at 15.1 Mbps. The site ranks Belfast 5,077th of 5,332 small cities nationwide with an average download speed of 10.1 Mbps.

With statistics like these, Maine municipalities are looking at ways they can invest in network infrastructure that would make their communities more competitive.

Rockport received national attention last summer for developing a town-owned fiber-optic network delivering gigabit-per-second service to downtown businesses, and Belfast officials are considering investing city money to develop something similar.

Rockport's network, built through a public-private partnership among the town, Maine-based Internet provider GWI, Maine Media Workshops and University of Maine, connects to a statewide open-access fiber-optic network built with $25 million in stimulus funds from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and private investment. The 1,100-mile network, known as the Three Ring Binder, provides "middle-mile" fiber-optic services to 100 towns, including Belfast, thus reducing the costs Internet service providers would need to invest to build "last-mile" fiber-optic services to residences and businesses.

However, major Internet service providers Time Warner and FairPoint do not currently offer last-mile service to Belfast, and have a history of lobbying against legislation that would allow municipalities to offer the service.

State Rep. MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) said Time Warner invited state legislators to an all-expense-paid weekend conference in January. She did not attend, but the Portland Press Herald reported presenters at the conference argued against government-operated networks. FairPoint opposed creation of the Three Ring Binder, arguing it would bring unfair competition to the closed-access fiber-optic network it has been building in the state.

Several bills moving through the state Legislature this session would encourage development of municipal high-speed networks. Some of those being considered by the Energy, Utilities and Technology committee include: LD 912, "An Act to Allow the Establishment of Regional Municipal Utility Districts to Support Telecommunications, Broadband Communications and Energy Infrastructure"; LD 826, "An Act to Promote Maine's Economic Development and Critical Communications for Rural Family Farms, Businesses and Residences by Strategic Public Investments in High-speed Internet"; and another, LD 465, requiring that all funds in the broadband sustainability fund be used to support municipal governments in developing plans to promote broadband service in unserved or underserved areas.

A representative at Time Warner stated they do not offer fiber-optic service "anywhere yet," adding that they do offer their fastest service with 50 Mbps download speeds and 5 Mbps upload speeds to Belfast customers. A FairPoint marketing representative did not know about any plans for adding fiber-optic service for residents and businesses in the city, but said they offer bonded copper cable with up to 25 Mbps download speed and up to 2 Mbps upload speeds in Belfast.

One local provider, UniTel, does offer last-mile fiber-optic service to about 300 residents and businesses in Belfast. The Unity-based company has just received a grant from the state ConnectME Authority which it will use with a company match to build an 85-mile expansion of its fiber-optic network into towns in Waldo County that are not on the Three Ring Binder route. The company is also collaborating with Unity Foundation to offer free classes to increase use of the resource in the community.

A major benefit of a fiber-optic network is its upload speeds. According to John Broder, CEO of Portland-based Tilson Technology Management, fast upload speed is an important component of the infrastructure Maine needs for balanced intellectual trade.

Speaking at a TEDx Talk in 2012, Broder explained that Internet networks are currently designed for downloading content — mainly entertainment produced elsewhere — but Maine's innovative economy requires better upload speeds so dispersed design teams can collaborate effectively and so Maine businesses can share content produced here with the rest of the world.

Belfast Economic Development Director Thomas Kittredge told city councilors March 17 he attended a meeting with economic development directors of Rockport and Rockland to discuss a proposal from Tilson Technology Management for exploring shared fiber-optic network development among municipalities in the region. The cost to each town decreases as more municipalities join the study.

Kittredge said the cost to Belfast for Tilson's services — including a stakeholder survey, asset inventory, network design, development of operating cost estimates, business model options, economic modeling and final report — could be around $20,000, depending on the other municipalities' participation.

Looking a little closer at what kind of initial investment would be required from the city, the proposal shows that for one municipality the cost would be $30,000; for two, the total cost to be divided between them would be $42,000; for three the total cost would be $52,000; for four the total cost would be $60,000; and each additional town joining beyond four would add $8,000 to the total cost.

Kittredge said he and City Manager Joe Slocum also met with representatives from UniTel, who recommended the city "determine if there is a need" through a community survey before pursuing municipal network ownership.

"Municipalities should assess what their needs are and take into account what they have for facilities and resources in their community instead of overbuilding what you already have in private investment with public funds," UniTel's president, CEO and owner Laurie Osgood said during a phone interview March 23.

In discussion, councilors were leaning toward conducting a survey as suggested by UniTel, but chose to appoint a Broadband Committee to consider all options and make recommendations to the council.

Councilor Mike Hurley suggested if a survey were conducted, it should be an online survey of businesses rather than of residents because many elderly residents do not see a need for high-speed Internet.

A 2014 Pew Research report on older adults and technology use found 70 percent of seniors who use the Internet agree that people without Internet access are at a disadvantage and are missing out on important information. But of seniors who do not use the Internet, only 48 percent agree that people lacking Internet access are at a disadvantage, and 35 percent disagree with the statement.

However, Kittredge argued for a mail survey to all residents, many of whom may have poor Internet service. "The very people who have a challenge may not be easily reached if it is only online," he said.

Councilor Neal Harkness urged councilors to look to the future when considering Internet network infrastructure for Belfast.

"In five years… the burden on the Internet is going to skyrocket," he said. "We can't base a decision on what the demand is now, we have to base it on what the demand is going to be in five to 10 years."

Councilor Mary Mortier said, "Maine sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of the nation. People who are used to what is available in other places look at what is offered here and we come up short."

Kittredge said he would be looking for people to recommend to serve on the Broadband Committee during the next couple of weeks. The council plans to appoint the committee at its next meeting, April 7.