Franklin County forum addresses internet issues

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PHILLIPS — Access to high-quality, affordable and reliable internet service is a necessity for rural western Maine, residents at an information meeting were told Wednesday night.

Attendees discussed their frustrations with high costs, unreliable speeds and spotty connections. Business owners wanted to grow and enable employees to telecommute. Families wanted their children to have educational opportunities to help them compete with others in high-speed connected communities. Municipalities with fire and police departments, libraries and town clerks, could save time and money by taking professional development webinars online, some said.

Other advantages of high-speed internet include medical service providers offering patients with equipment that monitors daily levels of blood sugar, weight, heart rate and blood pressure, reducing the need for frequent trips to a hospital or doctor’s office.

Many owners of seasonal rental properties say tenants aren’t interested if high-speed internet isn’t available.

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Property value can increase by as much as $5,000 with broadband access in the seller’s package, and lack of access can hurt the local tax base, some said.

Eric Kinney, a Phillips real estate broker, said he has lost sales when customers find they won’t have high-speed connections. Second-home buyers and retirees coming to the area want to ski, ATV, snowmobile, fish and hunt, but they also want to stay connected, he said.

“People just expect it,” Kinney said.

While many residents are accustomed to modest upload and download speeds, a growing group finds western Maine’s rural broadband options expensive, unreliable and limited. One Jay resident said he had only two choices of providers.

“How do we create competition among the existing providers to get them to fall all over themselves to provide service to us?” Gary McGrane of Jay asked.

The quest for increased broadband service effort isn’t breaking new ground, according to presenters.

In 2016, Somerset Economic Development Corp. and the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments applied for a planning grant and have been able to report findings and recommendations for their area.

Western Maine organizers include the Opportunity Center of North Franklin County, Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, Rangeley Economic Opportunity Committee and Greater Franklin Development Corp. They have met with Susan Corbett,CEO of Machias-based Axiom. and David Maxwell, program director of ConnectME Authority.

Their goal has been to help communities get connected to what Maxwell calls the established “middle mile” fiber network that was built through parts of the state with stimulus money from the American and Recovery Act. That fiber optics backbone through the state connected the University of Maine campuses, hospitals and other large users of bandwidth.

Today, that “middle mile” network is owned by the Portland-based Maine Fiber Co. That network has plenty of unused bandwidth, called “dark fiber,” but the toughest part for rural communities, according to Maxwell and Corbett, is the detailed planning required to connect to it.

ConnectME and Axiom negotiate with power companies that own the poles that will carry the fiber. They find funding that enables telecommunications or cable TV companies to bring access to these “last mile” customers in rural Maine. Maxwell said part of the state government’s goal will be to connect rural communities with the rest of the nation’s emergency services.

Corbett said funding support has come from a range of supporters, including Microsoft and other private and nonprofit organizations committed to rural growth and economic opportunities.

“A broadband connection has the power to change a person’s life, but it can also change the economic status of a region,” Corbett said.

She stressed that success stories of broadband expansions in Maine are the result of thorough planning.

“It’s not that the final cost to connect the rural customers don’t matter,” she said. “But the major task at this point in time is to build support for the application.”

“We must show that we have the interest and support of the communities and businesses of Franklin County,” Charlie Woodworth of the Phillips-based Opportunity Center said. “We are currently reaching out to health providers, educational institutions, service organizations and municipalities, but we need everyone to participate and show their support.”

He asked the audience to watch a video (youtube/IQ6LMaPmueY) that shows how other Maine communities, and he encouraged all Franklin County residents to participate in a survey (www.surveymonkey.com/r/FD8LF2T ) to help them identify and map least-served areas, average speed and cost of current internet services.

The grant application, Woodworth said, needs to be submitted, along with surveys and letters of support, by the end of April.

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