Fletcher Kittredge, founder and CEO of GWI, has been working tirelessly for more than 20 years to bring the future to Maine.
Just ask one of his former employees. A world-class programmer in Boston’s flourishing tech scene, who traded in the big city lifestyle – replete with resources a programmer needs to thrive – for peace and serenity on his family’s goat farm in Washington County. With a secure gigabit internet connection delivered directly to the farm, he’s able to provide his clients with the same level of service he did in Boston, while enjoying the advantages of a rural Maine lifestyle.
All thanks to Kittredge and GWI.
“You could live in a small fishing village in coastal Maine and have a pretty nice lifestyle.” Kittredge, a former Boston-based programmer himself, mentioned.
“If you get really good connectivity,” he added.
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When Kittredge was studying software engineering at Harvard in the early nineties, he came across a New York Times article about the internet and its potential. Inspired, Kittredge jumped into action. He used a small inheritance to fund a startup, and soon enough the Arundel native was headed back home to Maine to get to work.
Making the move, he says, “was terrifying.” His wife was pregnant with their third child, he was leaving a secure job and they were picking up their family to start a company in a newly emerging sector. But, as Kittredge observes, “The advantage of being young is you really have the sense you can do something, and if it doesn’t work out you can do something else.”
With that philosophy in mind, Kittredge and his family settled in South Berwick, partially because it was a plausible daily commute to Boston should the startup not succeed.
But the company didn’t just succeed – it flourished. GWI, known then as Biddeford Internet Corporation, grew by leaps and bounds in its first decade.
Kittredge’s venture provided dial-up internet in the Biddeford area. Within a year they controlled 70% of Maine’s dial-up market. By year two, GWI was partnering with cable companies to support high-speed internet services while also expanding their internet offerings to include tech support and domain names. Within five years, the company was in the top 10% of domain providers worldwide.
At the ten-year mark, the company was serving 60,000 internet customers, and was identified by Inc. Magazine as one of the fastest growing companies in the country. Kittredge and GWI have now received that honor an additional five times.
GWI’s growth carried into its 15th year. Kittredge had now turned his attention to improving broadband access in Maine — a cause he is passionate about still to this day.
He brought together private and public funds, totaling $32 million, to create a fiber optic network that acts as a high-speed internet corridor through Maine. The network, known as the Three Ring Binder project, has been instrumental for increasing broadband access in Maine’s rural areas. It’s helped companies in Aroostook, Piscataquis and Washington Counties connect with the rest of the world.
But the impact of the project is felt far beyond the state’s borders. Data now travels directly through Maine, instead of up and around, to reach Nova Scotia, creating a direct underwater route to reach Europe.
With the Three Ring Binder proven a success, Kittredge is disappointed there are no other similar initiatives on the horizon. He is firm in his belief that reliable high-speed internet access can help attract talented young people to counteract the state’s aging population.
“If you had really good connectivity in rural Maine, that would make it a much more attractive place for businesses and people,” he says. “Particularly the entrepreneurial technology, science and math, STEM types, where they could live a pretty cool lifestyle and still be connected to the rest of the world in a way they could work there.”
Kittredge is unfaltering in his efforts to highlight the internet’s importance to economic development. In 2011, he traveled across the state, presenting on how high-speed internet could be a “ray of economic sunshine.” He created a 10-point plan for improving Maine’s broadband access in 2014, citing the need to improve one of the lowest-quality internet connections in the nation, according to a report by Montana-based firm Ookla.
His fear is that Maine will continue to fall behind the rest of the United States, with the state’s rural areas even further behind.
“Concepts grow like wildfire and spread, but actual work takes a long time,” he says, explaining that a project started now could take ten years to build. By that time, at the rate technologies change, the state’s infrastructure would be incredibly out of date before it can even be fully taken advantage of.
But Fletcher Kittredge still knows Maine is a special place, and he wants it to thrive.
He came home to Maine and built a company that has had an incalculable impact on the state’s economy. He saw the future, and for twenty years he’s been steering his home state to take advantage of it.
That’s why Fletcher Kittredge is a Maine Icon.