Editor’s Note: This story is part of a special, two-part report is part of a continuing series on poverty in Maine, and the strangling affect poverty has on our communities. We look at how vital broadband accessibility is for our schools, our businesses and our health. The work is being done in cooperation with the Investigative Editing Corps.

ISLESBORO — Becky Schnur spent eight years trying to get internet at her Islesboro home to no avail.

Roger Heinen of Islesboro stands inside the Point of Presence building where all fiber internet connections come to the island, running from the mainland under the bay. Photo courtesy of the Island Institute

“We were in a gap,” she said. “Even though we were a mile from the router box, we couldn’t get DSL.”

But after a $4 million municipal project, Schnur and the rest of her small island municipality of about 600 full-time residents are one of the best connected communities in the state. The effort has made the island a case study in how a large investment and a private-public partnership can improve the quality of life for residents.

Roger Heinen, who moved to Islesboro in 1996 from Seattle, Washington, said he had the same level of internet service in Islesboro in 2015 as he did in Seattle in 1995. Because service providers were located far from the island, Heinen said some residents faced a total lack of internet service, while others dealt with slow speeds and network problems that could last a week.

Heinen, who is on the Islesboro Municipal Broadband Oversight Committee, said he preached the internet’s importance to the Islesboro Select Board as soon as he moved, but it wasn’t until about 2014 that the ball got rolling on broadband. At about that time, he said, the Select Board opened a letter from a full-time couple with children in the school saying they had to leave the island because they could not access the internet from their home.

“When we started this, everyone was on the wrong side of the digital divide,” Heinen said. “Since then, we’re one of the best connected towns in America.”

The town approved a $3.8 million bond, and provided about $200,000 more for planning, to build fiber infrastructure that brought internet through Biddeford’s GWI.

“The biggest houses and the most average family with school kids have the same internet to their home,” Heinen said. “That has been a perfect system for the island.”

The annual cost is $360 for those receiving the service. According to a 2019 report from Community Networks, more than 90% of premises on the island are connected to the network. Heinen said that even after factoring in the added property tax burden from helping finance the new service infrastructure, “most all homes on the island pay less than they were paying before” for better service.

Heinen said the project has increased property values on the island, as well as allowed part-time residents to stay on the island longer because they can work remotely, an amenity that Schnur called “heaven.”

“Most of my job is online,” said Schnur, who pre-pandemic split her time between Augusta, where she works, and the island. “It would have been virtually impossible to do what I am doing now under the previous circumstances.”

Heinen said Islesboro’s solution may not be feasible for all communities, but he urged communities interested in broadband to seek answers to their broadband questions.

To read more from this special, two-part report done in cooperation with the Investigative Editing Corps, click here

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