A chat with the city manager of Sanford, Maine

Yesterday three of us had a conference call with Steven Buck, the city manager for Sanford, Maine. We wanted to learn more about their emerging community network and the issues they have experienced. Sanford is a city in Maine with about 20,000 people and sits about 30 miles southwest of Portland, Maine. Sanford is building its own community network and is doing so “out of pocket” by using some city funds and an Economic Development Authority grant from the federal government. The city provided about $800K of the total $1.6M for the first phase of the plan.

Sanford’s approach is quite interesting because it’s a “businesses-first” approach. The area has two commercial Internet service providers they tried to engage who provide marginal and frequently congested “high-speed” service to the city and surrounding areas. But both providers simply were not interested, forcing the city to find their own way. The private sector is not always faster or better, particularly when they don’t want to be engaged.

An initial 45-miles is planned for a business park area. They identified 87 anchor institutions in this area, all of whom are willing to participate in the new network. Their hope is that by providing the data communications these institutions need that it will attract more businesses to Sanford, increasing the local economy. Moving the service to residential areas is planned for a later phase. In part because they are not issuing municipal bonds to cover the cost of the network, they expect to be able to offer high-speed internet access at affordable rates, likely under $40/month for 100 megabits per second access to residences. Still, they encountered many technical and managerial challenges. Building the right network and finding the right partners to build it has been both challenging and exasperating at times.

Their focus on business needs makes sense and probably explains why we quickly garnered the support of Suzanne Beck, executive director of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce. It’s quite clear that community networks increase property values compared to communities without them. Knowing that a city is friendly to the needs of businesses by having an infrastructure in place to support their communications needs at a reasonable price brings in businesses and entrepreneurs.

We hope our city will make this connection too and support our endeavor in the months ahead.

You can read more about Sanford’s experience here.

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