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Rural living, high-speed Internet access?

Maine's governor is leading an initiative to bring wireless service to areas with at least five people per square mile.

Rob Newell spends his days fixing high-speed Internet connections.

But when he returns to his home office here in western Maine, a two-hour drive from Portland, Newell is forced to use an abysmally slow dial-up connection that takes hours to download material he needs for business and makes it impossible to fix clients' computers remotely.

"It's quite difficult," said Newell, who owns Newell Consulting, a computer networking company. He cannot get high-speed Internet access from the phone company because the nearest central office, in Farmington, is 10 miles away, too far to maintain a connection. Hooking up his house by satellite would cost about $800 a month, he said. Any time he has to download new programs to upgrade his computer devices, he said, "it's almost unfeasible."

Newell and others will finally be able to join the broadband world with help from an unlikely source: the state of Maine.

Gov. John E. Baldacci is leading an initiative to bring wireless Internet service to 90 percent of Maine communities that meet a population threshold (five people per square mile) by 2010. Baldacci, who announced the initiative, Connect Maine, last January, is also pledging universal cell phone coverage by 2008.

"The thing about technology is that you can never rest on your laurels," said Kurt Adams, counsel to Baldacci. "With how quickly technology is developing, Gov. Baldacci believes we have to keep up with the pace in order to keep an advantage."

Part of Baldacci's inspiration for the project came from his own experience driving around the state and losing cell phone coverage, Adams said.

Details are still being worked out. The state has nearly completed a program mapping out cell phone and broadband dead zones, and a task force of telecommunications company representatives, business owners and others will deliver recommendations to Baldacci by the end of the month.

While the price of outfitting Maine with broadband service is still being determined, it will cost roughly $55 million to build enough cell towers to cover the state, Adams said.

Phone and cable companies have not expanded broadband service outside the state's large towns because they see no profit from such an investment; large areas still lack cable television service altogether. The same is true with cellular towers; coverage has been difficult because the state's 1.2 million residents are widely dispersed, and DSL, the phone companies' broadband technology, requires users to be within about three miles of a central office.

Rather than underwrite the entire effort, the state will most likely use a combination of measures that could include tax incentives, direct subsidies to companies and grants to municipalities, those involved with state technology efforts said.

It is also looking toward businesses like Ubiquitair, a broadband company in York, Maine, that is bringing the technology to residential islands in Casco Bay, in southern Maine.

"Initially it was a straight need, a lack of competition and an ability to do something that no one else has done," said Stuart Santoro, the company's founder, of its move to the islands. "Ideally, if you can get into rural areas and be able to provide services that others can't provide, you're helping increase property values, and telecommuters can stay home and work."

The state is also exploring use of the federal government's Universal Service Fund to help pay for the effort.

"There are going to be areas of the state where the economics may be poor, and those are the areas where we need government intervention," said Peter Reilly, a spokesman for Verizon, the state's largest broadband and wireless provider. "The opportunity is there for the government to partner with private industry in those areas where market economics are considered questionable for natural development."

State officials say the program is a way to make the state more competitive by attracting businesses and residents, and giving existing small businesses a way to expand their reach outside Maine.

They also see it as a way to stem the tide of young college graduates who leave the state for jobs, and a means to help recover some of the thousands of manufacturing and industrial jobs the state has lost in the last 20 years with the closing of plants and factories.

"There's an economic development imperative, a human resource drain imperative and an environmental imperative," said Tony Buxton, an energy lawyer who is involved in the initiative. "There's a challenge for any state like Maine with issues such as the loss of talented people to other markets, the effects of globalization on natural-resources-based industries and competition for industries such as call centers, all which can be affected dramatically by the ability of people to use technology."

In many cases downtown areas have broadband service, but not homes one mile away. About one in six residents currently lack broadband access, Adams said.

The state's hilly terrain also makes it difficult to ensure cell phone coverage, and many involved in the effort said this made the notion of statewide service impossible. The state set up a program for residents to report dead spots, which the state is mapping. More than 3,000 people have responded since spring. Most of the spots are along Interstate 95, which runs the length of the state.

For people like Sam Elowitch, a Web developer and editor from Farmington, broadband access is reason enough to move to a new house, as he and his family did two years ago.

Four years ago, Elowitch founded the Rural Broadband Initiative, a program to help bring broadband to western and rural Maine.

Elowitch, who is on the governor's broadband access committee, worries that places like New Vineyard, on the outskirts of a small town, may still not receive service. He is also concerned that the technology may develop faster than the initiative.

"Just because a town offers DSL and cable doesn't mean the problem is solved," Elowitch said.

Some, including Richard Davis, the Farmington town manager, say they think any new technology will be better than dial-up. The rural region, he said, is still struggling to get back on its feet after the loss of manufacturing jobs, and is looking for ways to help ramp up the economy.

"Up here in the wilds of Maine, we're somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, but we have a lot of folks who do business out of their homes," Davis said. "It's important for the economy anywhere, but it will be particularly helpful here in this area, where we don't have a lot of manufacturing jobs anymore."