With schools across the county shifting to hybrid or fully remote learning because of the pandemic, and more people than ever working from home, the need for dependable high-speed internet in Waldo County and elsewhere across Maine has been elevated to a new level.

Last July, voters approved a $15 million bond for the ConnectMaine Authority to provide funding for high-speed internet infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas of the state.

Several people interested in bringing municipal broadband to their western Waldo County communities have banded together in the last several months and are meeting remotely the second Wednesday of each month to plan, organize and set goals.

The Southwestern Waldo County Broadband Coalition, as the group is known, currently encompasses members who live in Freedom, Palermo, Unity and Montville who would all like to see broadband internet in their communities. Within the first month of being an organized entity, the coalition was awarded a $5,000 grant by ConnectMaine to plan and conduct a feasibility study.

The Republican Journal attended two Zoom meetings, which were themselves a testament to the need for better internet options, with technological glitches making the events frustrating at times.

Palermo Selectman Bob Kurek told The Journal initially he received a letter from Freedom Selectman Elaine Higgins, “seeing if there was any interest in trying to get better internet for our towns.”

The first meeting was a little confusing, Kurek said, with lots of talk about surveys, analyzing results, meeting with providers, setting goals, timing, fiber vs DSL vs satellite, funding, ConnectMaine, and USDA grants.

“Our heads were spinning,” he said.

Since then, the coalition has begun working with Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, a collaborative and resource hub for municipal governments, which has given the group guidance and provided direction to grant sources.

Between meetings, Kurek said, members viewed a presentation from the USDA Rural Utilities Service on its Community Connect Program and sat in on a couple of ConnectMaine's board meetings.

The Journal met with the staff of ConnectMaine Jan. 29, along with Board Chairman Nick Battista, to discuss the program and broadband in the state.

Peggy Schaffer, director of the ConnectMaine Authority, said western Waldo County is a dark place on the map in terms of internet service, but added the region is not alone.

The FCC estimates the number of unserved households in Maine at somewhere around 40,000, she said, adding “We know it’s more like a minimum of 85,000 homes that are unserved.”

Schaffer said this number is probably a low estimate, given that the best data available is not totally comprehensive. The FCC, she said, asks internet service providers what their fastest advertised speed is by census block.

If one location in a census block is served, or could be served, that entire census block is designated as served, Schaffer said. “We have census blocks in Maine that could possibly be served at 25/3, … when in fact no one in the census block is served.”

People with less than 25 megabits per second downloading speed, and less than 3 Mbps when uploading, are considered unserved by FCC standards. Schaffer’s agency is providing grant funding for planning and infrastructure upgrades to areas of the state that have less than the 25 over 3 standard.

ConnectMaine is funded by two fees on landlines that generate about $600,000 a year. The amount needed to bring broadband to about 95% of the state, a 2025 agency goal, she noted, is closer to about $600 million.

“The state is not going to pay for all of that,” she said. “Providers will pay for a piece, maybe federal money, maybe private money, certainly community money — those are all the pieces of how we are going to reach that goal.”

With broadband, Schaffer said, it really matters where you live. “You could live on a rural road in Maine,” she said, “and your neighbor can have good service, be it cable or some other service, and it does not extend to your house.

“It’s because there are limits to the technology,” Schaffer said.  It is “because your next piece (of equipment) would be much more expensive than the revenue stream coming back into the cable company for providing your service.”

One thing to note, Schaffer said, is that cable and DSL are shared networks, “which means if your neighbors are using it, and you are using it, there is less for everybody to use.”

Schaffer recommends fiber networks over other options for expanding future networks.  “You need to build a technology that is going to keep pace with the demand of the community, and that essentially is fiber.”

Fiber is a 20- to 30-year investment, she said. The infrastructure that is serving Maine now, the DSL copper network, was put up at least 20 years ago, probably more like 40 years ago.

An approximate price to install fiber-optic cable, Schaffer guessed, would be around $30,000 to $40,000 a mile. “Paving your roads is more like $100,000 a mile,” she said. And fiber “lasts a little bit longer than pavement.”

There are some interim pieces that are cheaper in the short run, she said, such as wireless, but this also would require upgrades. If communities want immediate solutions while working on the longer term, wireless may be one of the solutions to look at, she said.

Schaffer said there are internet providers that might be interested in serving the western Waldo County area, and that part of the committee process is to bring enough people together to show ISPs there is opportunity there.

“It’s really important that communities work together,” she said. “In this way there is more density and you can bring in more demand. If you can build out a chunk of Waldo County at a time, it is a much more efficient way of building the infrastructure, plus you get the buying power of multiple communities together.”

The two planning grants Schaffer said her agency gave out a couple of years ago for Franklin and Oxford counties to bring fiber to all homes there was about $140 million, or $70 million per county.

To bring fiber to all homes in either county works out to $3,000 a location per connection, she said. “When you divide that over the life of the asset, which is 20 years, that is a low expense….”

Battista, who is also senior policy officer at Island Institute, said the state’s $15 million bond is a good start, but is “nowhere near enough to help even all of the known (unserved communities) out there already, let alone the need that is being generated.”

“For the state to be a good partner in these conversations,” he said, “one of the things that the state needs to come to the table with is money.

“And if you add in a little bit of private money, a little bit of public money and the state can bring something meaningful to the table, the project should be able to go forward pretty easily. State funding has been the critical missing component in the broadband space,” he said.

Schaffer said a significant roadblock has been trying to figure out where there is service and where there is not. “Quite frankly, providers don’t always know,” she said, because their infrastructure is inherited.

It is helpful for communities to identify what actually is out there in terms of broadband, she said, and encouraged people to take an internet speed test to help define where it is not. To take the free test, visit Mainebroadbandcoalition.org.

According to Schaffer, there are a number of state and federal grants to subsidize planning and infrastructure, including funds from ConnectMaine (maine.gov/connectme/home), Maine Community Foundation (mainecf.org/) which offers building grants, and ReConnect Loan and Grant Program (usda.gov/reconnect).

Other helpful resources Schaffer mentioned can be found online and include Island Institute, Maine Broadband Coalition, Institute for Self Reliance and Next Century Cities.