Fed up with poor internet, rural Maine towns team up to fix the problem

Tired of dealing with poor internet connectivity, city officials and residents of Piscataquis and Penobscot counties formed their own coalition to bring broadband to their areas. Now they have to find money and a supplier.

Four towns – Corinna, Dover-Foxcroft, Dexter and Garland – have already joined the Maine Highlands Broadband Coalition. People from Abbot, Bowerbank, Brownville and Monson attended a meeting earlier this week and may decide to join later.

Rural Maine communities struggle with uneven internet access, but there has been little momentum to develop solutions. With more people working remotely and needing access for school and telehealth, the lack of broadband means people aren’t getting the services they need. The coalition aims to bring affordable and reliable internet to all area citizens and businesses, said Chris Maas, a Dover-Foxcroft resident who is leading the effort.

“There are people in our area who don’t have electricity,” he says. “They want to live off the grid and they are happy. If they don’t want broadband, they don’t need to have it. But if they want him, he should be there for them.

Reliable internet could keep young people in the area and attract new families and businesses, said Maas, who sits on Dover-Foxcroft’s planning council and climate action advisory committee.

About 20 people from eight cities, the Piscataquis Chamber of Commerce and the county’s economic development group attended the coalition’s first meeting on Tuesday. The group discussed a $60,000 broadband planning study released in December that presented fiber as the only option to implement countywide broadband.

The Piscataquis County Economic Development Board continued the study, in which consulting firm Casco Bay Advisors assessed broadband infrastructure throughout the county and suggested solutions. The effort ignored the roughly 660 homes considered off-grid, but provided a good starting point, Maas said.

To build a broadband network, the coalition must identify a provider, such as Premium Choice Broadband, Great Works Internet or Axiom Technologies, and negotiate a contract. It also needs to consider alternate solutions for off-grid locations and areas that need immediate coverage, Maas said.

The group must also set goals and find funding through grants, local philanthropy, internet service providers and other means, he said.

The coalition discussed ConnectMaine Authority broadband infrastructure grants totaling $15 million awarded last month that will serve approximately 6,000 locations across Maine.

These projects can serve as models, said Christa Thorpe, community development officer at the Island Institute in Rockland. Thorpe guides Maine communities in finding equitable high-speed Internet access.

“In any case, the state’s job was to fill the void after communities and internet providers had already figured out how they were going to pay for some of it,” she said. “They came to the state and said, ‘We’re definitely committing that amount of money and asking you to contribute the rest. “”

The state has not covered the cost of entire projects because the need is greater than the amount of funding available, she said.

The next round of state broadband infrastructure grants are expected to be about $40 million, which is encouraging, said Sam Naumann, grassroots advocacy coordinator for the Maine Broadband Coalition. The money should be available in late summer or early fall.

About $400 million is expected to come to Maine for broadband over the next few years, with large sums expected from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Thorpe and Naumann said.

Communities that join the coalition will have stronger bargaining power with providers and a better chance of securing grants and other funding, Maas said.

The coalition has invited 30 municipalities from Piscataquis, Penobscot and Somerset counties to join. They also invited the Piscataquis County commissioners, who expressed frustration with the broadband study and are pursuing their own paths of internet expansion. The commissioners were not present.

“It will be a long and complicated project,” Maas said. “It’s going to take talent and time. The more we can do, the faster we can do it. We’re the ones to drive this thing.

The first official meeting of the Maine Highlands Broadband Coalition is scheduled for June 7.

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