Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Bringing wi-fi to the islands

By MATT WICKENHEISER, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Islanders know there's virtue in isolation, but there also can be too much of a good thing. Now a York company has taken away some of Chebeague Island's isolation - at least virtually.

Ubiquitair Inc. has brought wireless broadband Internet - known as wi-fi - access to Chebeague and has "near-term" plans to build a similar network on Long Island and Cliff Island. The system allows Internet users to access Web sites and download information much faster and with greater flexibility than existing dial-up networks.

"You can basically be sitting on the porch with your laptop, overlooking the harbor, surfing at broadband speeds," said Stuart Santoro, Ubiquitair's president and chief executive officer.

Gov. John Baldacci has made expanding broadband access across rural Maine a priority. In January, he launched his "Connect Maine" program to ensure that 90 percent of Maine communities have broadband service by 2010.

Access to high-speed services are seen as key in allowing residents to live and work anywhere they choose, particularly in the age of a global economy, and that applies to Maine's coastal islands, too.

While there was broadband access at Chebeague's library through the Maine School and Library Network, service to homes has been elusive. Residents can use a dial-up service, which is the slowest available, and a few on the island reportedly have access through their satellite TV receivers, but that's slower than the three popular forms of broadband: DSL, cable and wi-fi.

"I've been in heaven the last three months," said Beverly Johnson, who runs the island's Web site and also owns Chebeague Plumbing.

She's been running the site since 1996 through a dial-up connection, she said. Now, with wi-fi, she's been able to easily download and upload the graphics she needs for the site.

"It's saved me hours; it's saved me an hour every day, probably," said Johnson.

David Hill said he has been trying to get broadband services to Chebeague for at least two years. His family goes back on Chebeague for hundreds of years, said Hill, but he and his immediate family only moved there last December.

He thought his quest for high-speed access was unattainable until Ubiquitair rolled out wi-fi technology this summer.

"For me it's a huge deal. The problem is just access to the Internet and being able to participate in modern communications is what it comes down to," said Hill. "It wouldn't be so bad if I wasn't spoiled rotten by having broadband at work."

He added, "It's just gotten to the point now where so much in life depends on the Internet. If you have a kid going to college and you try to fill out the (online student aid forms), try doing that over dial-up - it's excruciating."

The issue goes beyond convenience, suggested Nancy Jordan, librarian on Long Island and trustee of the Island Institute, a Rockland-based community-development organization that focuses on issues affecting 15 year-round island communities.

"I think that it will help us keep people that we have here that for various reasons might have to move out, for employment reasons," said Jordan. "And I think it will help us attract new families, which we need desperately. It will give people the ability to work from here."

Ubiquitair has two antennas on top of the Chebeague Island Inn that are connected to equipment that taps into a high-speed circuit provided by Verizon. The antennas provide wireless Internet for the Inn and its customers and also sends out a signal, giving access to a 10- to 15-acre area on the north part of the island.

Anywhere under that umbrella, anyone with a wireless-ready computer can get high-speed access to the Internet. To access the Internet, their computer first takes them to Ubiquitair's payment page. Prices are $9.95 for a day, $19.95 a week or $39.95 a month. The monthly fee is about what a mainland resident would pay for cable Internet services.

For residents not covered by the umbrella, Ubiquitair is offering a "business class" program. The company puts a small antenna on the side of the house that taps into the wireless network off the Inn's roof.

Both Hill and Johnson are business class users. They pay $29 a month now, on a trial basis, and Santoro said Ubiquitair would revisit the fees soon.

Ubiquitair was incorporated in March and has two employees. Much of the work is done through contracting other companies, said Santoro.

Santoro said he's worked in the telecommunications industry for 15 years and moved recently from the Cape Neddick Harbor area of York to a neighborhood off the York River. He found he couldn't get broadband access in his new home, and the cost to provide a land line would have been prohibitive, so he worked out a wireless solution.

Then he looked for markets where his solution might work for others, said Santoro, and saw "incredible lack of bandwidth in some of the most expensive real estate in the country," Maine's islands.

Nobody's provided wi-fi services to the smaller islands because of the cost of investment, which Santoro declined to specify, and because of technology limitations.

So far, said Santoro, the company is self-funded, and technology has matured to a level where it works on the islands.

"The downside of islands is population fluctuation. You have peaks and valleys in the revenue stream," said Santoro.

Long Island has 202 year-round residents, but the population is more than 1,000 in the summer. Chebeague has 350 year-round residents and more than 2,000 in the summer.

The service on Chebeague covered the cost of operations over the summer, said Santoro. The goal is to do seven to 10 business-class installations a week, and maybe get 100 accounts total, to be supplemented heavily by summer usage.

"We can't be throwing money down the toilet. As long as we can get enough subscribers where we can at least break even and grow it, we plan to keep it going," said Santoro. "We'll go in the hole to keep it going for a while, but how long that while is. . . "

For the near-term, it looks like Ubiquitair will be the only company providing broadband to Chebeague, at least. Verizon said it had no plans to offer DSL service on the island. The company does plan to offer DSL to Long Island, but Santoro said that doesn't affect Ubiquitair's plans.

Hill said he hoped Ubiquitair would continue to offer its services on Chebeague.

"It'll be very messy if it goes away - it would cause marital discord," he said, half-jokingly.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: