Linda LaCroix, Bridgton Community Development director, stands outside her office at the Bridgton Town Office recently. Lacroix lives in town, but because of a lack of internet service due to disparities in Spectrum’s records for her address, she had to go to a friend’s house in North Bridgton when the pandemic forced her to work remotely. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald

BRIDGTON — When a couple of town employees tested positive for COVID-19 late last year and town offices closed for 2 1/2 weeks, Linda LaCroix could not simply “work from home.”

Her would-be internet service provider, Spectrum, is one of a number of providers that claim to have 95% to 100% connectivity in Bridgton, according to the website BroadbandNow, which collects data about broadband service availability, speed and pricing from internet providers and the Federal Communications Commission.

While LaCroix struggles to get her own home connected, she and a number of other local officials in the Lakes Region have been working to bring better broadband access to rural areas in Cumberland and Oxford counties through state-funded opportunities.

To apply for grants from the state’s ConnectMaine Authority, towns must demonstrate their need. But data from internet providers, such as is the case in Bridgton, and other publicly available maps misrepresent the full picture, claiming high-speed connectivity in areas that lack the proper infrastructure, Rep. Walter Riseman, I-Harrison, said.

State Rep. Walter Riseman of Harrison says maps erroneously claiming high-speed internet service in certain areas are hurting local efforts to enhance service to businesses and homeowners.

“We have situations where out on the street, there is broadband service connected on the pole. But once you go off a side street and you don’t meet the (internet providers’) criteria” for population density, Riseman said, “they won’t extend the service at their costs.”

Bridgton has “robust coverage (in the 90% range of households served), which is contrary to experience and puts us out of reach of available grants that could help cover costs for expanding broadband in the town,” read a post from the town on its Facebook page.

“If people want to get together and pay for it, that’s up to them. But it’s a very expensive proposition there,” Riseman said.

LaCroix compared broadband access to the rural electrification efforts of the 1930s. “(It’s) a justice issue for me, just like when electric power was in the city of Chicago but not in rural Vermont,” she said.

That disparity may be because federal law requires that only one household within a census block — which could be 15 homes along a stretch of road — has download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (mbps) and upload speeds of three mbps to be considered “served.”

Riseman has proposed a bill that would standardize the terms used to describe service availability.

Officials in Bridgton, Harrison and more than 20 other towns in the region are collecting their own data via internet speed tests and consumer surveys and hope to find regional solutions by working with neighboring communities.

Not only will this ease the financial burden on individual stakeholders but it will give communities the strength in numbers needed because, as Sebago Town Manager Michele Bukoveckas put it recently: “Being rural adds a whole new level of difficulty because some providers don’t want to go to rural areas.”

Mia Purcell of Community Concepts Finance Corp. in South Paris is helping coordinate many of these efforts. Purcell, along with Mike Wilson of the Northern Forest Center in South Portland, led a six-month “Broadband Bootcamp” that brought local administrators up to speed on the issue.

State Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford says he wants the Legislature to adopt a “big, hairy, audacious, bipartisan goal of 98% high-speed, reliable, broadband coverage across all of Maine.”

Being the “lone ranger” who manages economic development for 27 towns in northern Oxford County, “I couldn’t think of anything that could have a broader impact within the county at the residential, business level, than improving broadband,” Purcell said.

Purcell said reports of booming internet use during the pandemic proves her assessment was “spot on.”

That sentiment was echoed by state Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, who said the pandemic has “underscored for everybody how critically important” broadband is, and “how this is truly a public utility.”

He’s also proposed legislation focused on broadband. One piece is a $100 million bond for infrastructure that Bennett said is just one part of the estimated $600 million needed to expand broadband access.

Another would beef up ConnectMaine, which is housed under the Department of Economic and Community Development and has two full-time employees.

“My vision is that we adopt this big, hairy, audacious, bipartisan goal of 98% high-speed, reliable, broadband coverage across all of Maine,” Bennett said.

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