Various broadband initiatives across Maine to provide improved access

Photo credit: Barta IV, https://www.flickr.com/photos/98640399@N08/9287370881

by Jeanne Marquis

Communities through the Central Maine and Coastal regions are creating initiatives to improve their internet services to existing users and provide connection to underserved areas. Each community or coalition of communities is in a different stage of their progress, yet all have similar goals of future proofing their internet connections, providing reliable service to underserved residents and more affordable service to those who are currently served.

The Southwestern Waldo Broadband Coalition (SWBC) is one of these initiatives. Their goal is to connect Freedom, Liberty, Montville, Palermo, and Searsmont with affordable, accessible broadband coverage. In a survey conducted from April to September of 2021, fifty-five percent of respondents stated that no company was able to provide internet service to their homes. The survey results are further supported by a Geographical Information System (GIS) Mapping of the area showing most of Southwestern Waldo is in an internet desert devoid of connection.

Bob Kurek, Palermo selectman, explains why he works actively to advocate for SWBC,

“This is my second term as a selectman. I would like to leave the town doing something good for the town and I think this is probably the one thing that will benefit most of our residents.

“My next reason is funding. I would call myself a pragmatic conservative. I wouldn’t normally have gone after the government put in a lot of money. But as long as the government has decided they’ve got money that’s available [for broadband coverage], I want to be ready, willing and able to accept it and put it to use to solve a problem for our residents.”

The SWBC is fueled by volunteers from the five towns that comprise the coalition. Kurek explains, “If you realize the resources that it takes to pull together the information that you need to work on these grants? Small towns, like the R5 towns, don’t have enough resources to do it but when we combine we have the resources – I’m just thrilled by the people who work with us. We’ve got engineers, we’ve got educators, we’ve got accountants, we’ve got a good group of people who understand what it is that we’re wanting to do. They’re all working to solve the problem. They realize that our area is so unserved and underserved by broadband service. We could enhance our economic development, we can enhance education, and we can make it easier for people who need to communicate with doctors.”

The SWBC completed an extensive survey to ascertain the level of interest and need in their five town area. Key members of the coalition presented the results this September in informational sessions at town meetings. The SWBC earned the approval of all five select boards to use funds from the first distribution of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for a feasibility study. The SWBC is now soliciting bids from eight consulting firms.

Another broadband initiative in the Central Maine region is the Western Kennebec Lakes Community Broadband Asso­ciation, which combines the towns of Fayette, Leeds, Mount Vernon, Readfield, Vienna and Wayne. A statement on the association’s website expresses that their towns need improved access to the internet to help their students get an education, promote remote work opportunities, access information and reduce isolation by connecting family and friends. The association also views internet access as vital to the future financial wellbeing of their communities by encouraging new residents to settle and their current families’ youth to stay or return.

The WKLCBA is currently gathering survey information from residents from their six communities. Video testimonials are posted on their website expressing the need for improved internet service from a variety of sectors: health, education and business.

Ellsworth is an example of a community with a newly-installed fiber network serving three miles of their downtown area. The city is currently offering leases to connect to the network to both residential and business customers. The goal of the fiber network project is to position Ellsworth as a technology-friendly city to attract remote workers and companies for whom broadband is a vital component of their business.

The Ellsworth city website says the city may expand the network overtime as the interest grows and update the technology at either end of the cable as needed.

The Town of China appointed a broadband committee to research options for better internet service and this committee has been meeting since early 2017. The China Broadband Committee (CBC) found that the major internet provider services only 70 percent of the town, the rest are serviced by a lower quality DSL or have no service. The committee’s solution to provide more reliable, more affordable internet service to every resident and business in China is similar to the fiber network plans of the broadband initiatives in progress across our state. The CBC plan is highly detailed and analyzed in an October 14, 2021, article by The Town Line technical advisor Eric Austin found at https://townline.org/category/sections/columns/tech-talk/ and on the CBC website at https://chinabroadband.net/.

 
 

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