For a small business owner trying to run her business in Northern Maine, the idea of paying $750 a month for internet access was simply outrageous. Welcome to Washington County, circa 1998. Susan Corbett had ten employees working in both Jonesport and remotely with clients throughout New England.
“I was a career practice office nurse and consultant from the Boston area, who had fallen hopelessly in love with Maine. I came into Jonesport and saw the Beals Island bridge, there were boats in the harbor, it was snowing, and it was like stepping into a Norman Rockwell calendar. It was just beautiful.”
After relocating her medical billing and consulting firm to Jonesport, she had no option but to find a way to make it work. Her clients wanted to send files via email, so she called one of the state’s Internet providers to request a connection for her company. “Frankly, they laughed at me,” says Corbett.
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At the time, the only two towns in Washington County with internet access were Machias and Calais. Corbett was eventually able to get connected, but at the incredibly steep price of $750 a month. She recalls stamping her foot in frustration at an engineer, demanding to know why internet access was available in Taipei, but she could not have it in Maine. Corbett began thinking about ways to share her connection with other businesses in Jonesport.
Corbett continued to make inquiries capturing the attention of local technology gurus. Her enthusiasm and aptitude garnered her an invitation to become CFO for the year-old startup Axiom Technologies. At that time, Axiom was the only internet service provider in the area and just getting established. Her first order of business was to organize operations, manage the financial side and work on outreach.
“In the early days, I met with a lot of communities to explain what broadband was. Today, I meet with communities to help them find solutions to bring broadband to the unserved homes and businesses as well as increase capacity of existing broadband networks,” says Corbett.
Corbett explains the company’s evolution this way: “The primary goal for Axiom initially was getting people connected to the Internet and to a big extent that is still true today. However, Axiom brought a wider vision about what that meant. Not only did it mean investing in Washington County and hiring local people (50+ to date) but a commitment to social responsibility to the people and communities in which we serve throughout Maine and the United States. That is how Axiom became and still is a different kind of company.”
Axiom installed the first Wireless Access Point in Jonesport in June 2005. Today, Washington County has over ninety access points. Getting to that point was a significant challenge that has required quite a bit of creativity from Axiom’s team.
“It’s a beautiful state, but there’s some challenging geography. Figuring out how to make wireless work over tree lines, mountains, rock and through fog – that’s a challenge. So the company has evolved. We use many different types of technologies because there is no single answer. What one house needs isn’t the solution for another,” explains Corbett. Axiom uses a variety of technologies to solve the connectivity issues including DSL, fiber and even dial-up. They look at whatever makes the most sense for a geographic area. “Anything to get the job done,” says Corbett.
What sets Axiom Technologies apart is their commitment to promoting digital literacy. The company started an education program after receiving a grant from the ConnectME Authority in 2006 allowing them to bring an education specialist on staff. This effort was ahead of the curve for its time, but Corbett recognized the need. If people were going to use the internet effectively, they had to understand how to use it as well as understand its value.
Digital literacy is one of the four components of the Digital Inclusion movement – the other three are broadband affordability, equipment affordability and public computer access. Axiom is diligently attacking all of the components with their goal to bring broadband access to in every household in Maine.
They received a big boost toward that goal this year, winning one of twelve Microsoft grants given out worldwide. Axiom was the only company in the United States to receive the grant.
Corbett says they will use the grant to continue developing and utilizing a technology known as TV white space. With television sets now digital, the airwaves being used by analog televisions have been abandoned and are available for use in internet connectivity. In Maine, the white space technology is vital for increasing internet access as white space airwaves are not hindered by trees.
Even with the significant advances they have made, Axiom and the state’s forty other internet service providers still have work to do. There are as many as 20,000 full-time residences in the state that don’t have broadband access. And of the homes that do have broadband access only 75% of them subscribe to the service.
That is a problem, explains Corbett, because “to apply for a job at McDonald’s you have to be able to access an online application now.” Getting people to understand the universality and necessity of the internet is a hurdle she and her team face, but they are up for the challenge.
It was running a business in Jonesport that led Corbett to become involved in economic development and the need for broadband access across Washington County and the entire state. And it is her love affair with Maine that keeps her focused, enthusiastic and committed to the challenges that lie ahead.
That is why Susan Corbett is a Maine Icon.