Tidewater Telecom Inc., of Nobleboro, is ensuring high-speed internet access for students and workers while many stay home – offering free service for students without internet access and free service upgrades for existing customers who need more bandwidth.
In addition, Tidewater moved quickly to boost local businesses’ capabilities so their employees could work securely from home. The company has taken these actions while employing new installation procedures to keep its employees out of customers’ homes until the coronavirus emergency ends.
Tidewater has assisted more than 150 families with free installations of new service or free upgrades of existing service since the coronavirus arrived in Maine, according to Marketing and Sales Director Alan Hinsey.
Hinsey described internet service as a critical need for students to participate in distance learning.
For families in its service area who have a student at home and lack internet access, Tidewater offers two months of free DSL service. For existing customers who need faster speeds, it offers free upgrades for two months.
Tidewater calls the program Free Internet Assistance to Families with Students at Home. The program will end June 30. Families have until May 31 to apply.
“We were aware that many homes, now with kids at home due to school closings, either did not have internet service or lacked the bandwidth they needed for the kids to do online lessons while mom and dad worked from home at the same time,” Hinsey said.
For these and all installations, Tidewater conducts “safe installs” with no contact between employees and customers, according to Hinsey. Tidewater employees do installation work outside homes, then provide instructions to set up internet access inside.
By the second week of March, Tidewater had decided its field technicians could no longer safely enter homes or businesses to complete installations, according to Hinsey.
“We started the safe installation option to protect our installers and protect our customers,” he said.
During an installation, crews run an internet cable to the exterior of a house and install an optical network terminal on the side of the house. On the terminal, they hang a sealed plastic bag that contains a specially designed 20-foot Ethernet cable with a prewired internet jack on the end.
When they feel comfortable, homeowners go outside and run the 20-foot Ethernet cable into their house through a window. The bag also contains instructions and technical support numbers to call if needed.
“Then they would follow step-by-step instructions to complete the temporary connection to the router inside the home,” Hinsey said.
When the coronavirus crisis ends, Tidewater will return to finish the permanent installation, including the installation of an internet jack and wiring inside the home, at no additional charge.
Hinsey said that customers who do not qualify for the assistance program will still receive a free month of fiber-optic internet service when they opt for a safe install.
In addition to its aid for students, Tidewater acted quickly to ensure local businesses and other organizations, including hospitals, have the capacity they need for employees to work from home in a secure manner.
The company started to field inquiries from some of its larger commercial customers about the need to increase bandwidth in February, before the coronavirus arrived in Maine, according to Hinsey.
“Because these business customers were already on our fiber-optic network, it was easy for us to turn up their bandwidth to meet the increased demand they were anticipating,” Hinsey said.
Hinsey said these customers include banks, call centers, and insurance companies, as well as hospitals and other health care facilities.
Tidewater provides fiber-optic service to all the MaineHealth hospitals and facilities in the Midcoast, according to Hinsey.
The bandwidth expansion has helped LincolnHealth, Pen Bay Medical Center, and Waldo County General Hospital provide telehealth services.
In addition to internet, Tidewater offers a variety of telephone services and television service. The company serves the Damariscotta region and is a sister company of Lincolnville Communications Inc. and Lincolnville Telephone Co.
The Lincolnville Communications Inc. fiber-optic network extends to the Boothbay region and Wiscasset in Lincoln County and serves other areas as far south as Freeport and as far north as the Bangor region. Lincolnville Telephone serves portions of Knox and Waldo counties.
Other internet assistance
Tidewater is not the only internet service provider offering assistance to students.
Spectrum, which provides cable TV, internet, and phone in the area, will provide free home internet service and Wi-Fi for 60 days to any household with a student from prekindergarten through 12th grade, according to information from K.J. Flewelling, technology director for the Damariscotta-based school district AOS 93. Households that are current internet customers can request free service for this time period.
Flewelling sent information about internet access to area families. The district has also set up guest Wi-Fi networks at each of its schools so students and their families can access the internet from school parking lots.
Families with students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch can receive home internet for 60 days through Consolidated Communications, while current customers can request free service for the same time period, according to Flewelling’s message to families.
Cellular providers Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile are all offering free additional data to support internet access from home. Many smartphones can act as hot spots to provide a wireless internet connection for a computer.
The Federal Communications Commission has issued guidelines to internet service providers to limit or eliminate service terminations and late fees during the pandemic.