If you've ever dreamed of the good life on one of Maine's coastal islands, be forewarned: jobs are few, mainly in lobstering, boat-building and ... caretaking summer residences. And if you're thinking "no problem, I can telecommute!" — think again, because internet access on the islands ranges from lousy to nonexistent.
Islanders struggling to maintain year 'round communities say that's a big problem. But now some Maine lobstermen and would-be telecommuters are banding together to pay for costly new infrastructure they hope will help preserve a threatened way of life.
They live on the Cranberry Isles, a small circle of islands a couple miles seaward from Acadia National Park. Constant water traffic — lobster boats, yachts, ferries — keeps the islands physically connected, but residents hanging out at the Great Cranberry Island Country Store worried about a different kind of connection — internet connection.
"It's incredibly slow," said Samuel Donald, who manages a local boat yard as he explained the situation to a couple of other locals and a visitor. Two internet companies provide service to Great Cranberry and to Islesford (also known as "Little Cranberry") next door, but Donald said the technology is so outdated, the bandwidth so narrow, that at best service hovers at a glacial speed of 1 megabit per second.
"And it's weather dependent,' he added. "So if there's fog or rain or, you know, it's dark out or whatever it doesn't work as well."
Internet companies haven't been keen to make costly improvements for remote, low-population 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. While she worked, her daughter Jessica's online homework sometimes had to take a back seat. When they both used the internet it "went pretty slow," Jessica said. And when Kelly wants to use the computer for uploads or downloads, her daughter said "she takes all the internet, she unplugs it and plugs it into her computer."
"I turn off the wi-fi, so no one else can touch it," Kelly said.
And when summer-people compete for the island's limited bandwidth, connections slow to a sub-crawl. Sanborn said that when that buffering "wheel of death" appeared on her computer screen, she saw dollars spinning away. She gave up medical transcription.
But workarounds can be found, including at the local library, where high school students, a graphic designer, and others who depend on the wired world congregate on the porch and foyer to access its dedicated internet wi-fi — the fastest on the island.
Rosalie Kell, an administrator of a service mission organization, had her laptop out to work through a problem getting funds to a group in El Salvador. She's been a leader in the effort to bring all the isles' households up to speed.
"It's about lifestyle and preserving cultures in a way that would not happen if we don't keep up with the 21st century."
At the turn of the 20th century, there were 200 Maine 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 8th grade - the most in 20 years.
It doesn't hurt that Maine's lobster industry is booming, as the crustacean's population has shifted away from warming southern waters to the colder zones of Downeast Maine.
A quick ferry from Great Cranberry over to Hadlock Cove in Isleford finds eighth-generation lobsterman Nick Hadlock shoveling herring inside a dock'top work shed while his four-year-old son, Elliott, watches.
"I fish 800 traps; that's the limit for the state of Maine," said Hadlock, one of several members of the local lobsterman's co-op who've bought bigger boats recently to keep up with the bountiful lobster hauls.
Internet service here, Hadlock noted, is even worse than on Great Cranberry. And because the fishing business can be pretty undependable — even without climate change it's subject to boom and bust cycles — Hadlock said job diversity wil be essential to his son's future as an islander. So he supports the $1.2 million bond voters approved to get the new project moving. He is hoping that a big grant application succeeds, though, letting property taxpayers off the hook. But if they do have to go to the well, Hadlock said, it's justified.
"Yeah it's real expensive but it's a need, not necessarily a want," he said. "Keeps them on the islands, other than going on a ferry back and forth. And [it] helps out actually raising kids and stuff, you know, mother and parents can stay at home and do their job right from there."
If all goes well, most homes on the Cranberry Isles should have high-speed internet within a year. And Microsoft is working with the Maine-based company that's spearheading the project, Axiom Technologies, to innovate new methods to deliver fast internet to other "last mile" communities in Maine and around the country.