Residents living on main roads in town will have new broadband options by the end of this summer, thanks to a large investment in a fiber-optic network by Charter-Spectrum.

Swanville First Selectman Cindy Boguen said besides her role as a town official, she is also a full-time fourth grade remote teacher based at Kermit Nickerson Elementary School.

She realized quickly, once the pandemic took hold, that her town was facing challenges accessing high-speed internet. Being in such a unique position and dealing firsthand with parents and businesses regarding broadband issues, she looked for options to help bring high-speed internet to Swanville.

The cost of bringing broadband to Swanville was discouraging, she said. “I knew there was no way our town could possibly afford to put it in ourselves.”

In an effort that has taken almost exactly a year, and according to Boguen, involved an extremely lengthy process, the town of Swanville was awarded a $795,000 grant to bring Spectrum broadband services to town.

The state, she discovered, had made funding available to help bring services into “small, needy towns” and she decided to apply for a grant through ConnectMaine, a state-run agency charged with expanding broadband throughout Maine.

Lengthy process

The application was long and included submitting town maps highlighting where the intended line would be installed, along with letters of support from local representatives and residents expressing the importance and need for such an undertaking.

Boguen also had to supply an approximate number of residents who would be available for the broadband program. “It involved a lot of research,” she said. Both former State Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, and State Rep. Scott Cuddy, D-Winterport, added letters of support for the project.

Lisa Brassbridge lives on the northern edge of Route 141, in an area she calls “the single worst spot” in town in terms of coverage. When her family originally moved to Swanville, she contacted Consolidated Communications, but was told it did not service her area because they were just a little too far away to hook into the wired substation.

Brassbridge could not get Bluestreak wireless to even come to her house to assess the situation and said her last resort was HughesNet, to which she is paying $69 monthly for internet service that is “spotty at best.”

Her situation is compounded when her three school-aged children use the internet to access classroom Zoom meetings, and she said the family has struggled. Brassbridge also runs a home business selling jewelry where she hosts live shows with clients online and has to "kick everyone off the internet.” After several dropped meetings and having to reconnect, she said, “I’m sure I'm losing business, and it’s frustrating.”

In an effort to provide access, the school district loaned the family a Verizon hotspot that Brassbridge said did not work. Another hotspot provided by the district using US Cellular has worked, but all three children cannot be connected at the same time. Luckily, she said, her children have resumed attending school in-person.

“I am super excited,” she said about broadband coming into Swanville, and added it cannot come soon enough.

First the bad news

Boguen initially received a call three weeks after submitting the application saying the town was denied the grant, with the decision favoring towns that had no internet at all.

It was hard hearing the town was passed over after spending so much time and effort on the application process, she said. “We have internet, but it’s just not good internet.”

Swanville’s main internet provider, she said, is Consolidated Communications, and some people also use HughesNet, among other services. “A consistent, good broadband service we do not have here,” she said.

Three weeks after receiving the bad news, Boguen received another call from Spectrum, this time saying it had decided to extend the program to three additional towns and would be funding the Swanville project 100%.

“I was so excited because I knew it was a large grant,” she said.

After that, Boguen said, she worked with engineers doing field studies to see how many people are on each road. Luckily, she noted, “Spectrum is at two of our borders already.”

She also credits having a prior relationship with Spectrum because of a resident who bought property that was half in Swanville and half in Searsport as helpful.

At the time, she allowed Spectrum to use underground lines to connect the resident to its network in Searsport. Having a good prior working relationship and contact with the engineer, Boguen said, felt lucky.

The town needed to obtain approvals from Central Maine Power and Consolidated Communications to allow the use of their lines, she said. “Spectrum has been great,” she added. The company anticipates having service completely installed by the end of the summer.

Sticking to the beaten path

The program initially will provide broadband service to all of the main roads going into Swanville, Boguen said, including routes 141 and 131 and Oak Hill Road.  At this point, she said, smaller roads or camp roads will not be included in the expansion program.

When asked if service is planned for the smaller roads off the main thoroughfare, Lara Pritchard, senior director of communications for Charter-Spectrum, said the company is always looking for opportunities to expand its network to additional homes and businesses.

“A variety of factors affect our expansion decisions,” she said, “including the number of additional homes or businesses we can reach, geographic or construction challenges and overall economic feasibility.”

This project will ensure more local homes and businesses will gain access to the company’s full suite of internet, TV, mobile and voice services. According to Pritchard, Spectrum internet offers starting speeds of 100 Mbps and connections up to 1 gigabit per second — with no modem fees, data caps or contracts.

The basic internet and TV service, she said, will start at $44.99 a month for 12 months, and $49.99 a month for internet only. Spectrum also offers low-cost options for those meeting specific criteria. For more information, visit spectrum.com/internet/spectrum-internet-assist.

In a December 2020 press release, Charter-Spectrum announced an investment of more than $3 million in construction projects in rural Maine to bring its advanced fiber-optic network and full suite of services to more than 1,500 area homes in Etna, Newburgh and Swanville.

Regarding the expansion project, Gov. Janet Mills said, “High-speed internet is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. I thank Charter Communications for its investment, which will connect students to online learning, seniors to home health care, and businesses to markets across the globe.”

Sharing expertise

Boguen said she has had a lot of people contact her asking “'When it is going to happen?' Everybody is very excited about it. Many people are struggling with the internet situation.” Even Second Selectman Fred Black does not have good internet at his home, she said, and has been waiting patiently for it to come in.

Officials from other towns have contacted Boguen to ask her advice on how to bring faster internet to their communities. “They are interested in doing the same thing and are not clear on how to go about it.”

She said towns should be prepared to prove a need, have community buy-in, get support from local representatives, and stay in close communication with ConnectMaine staff when completing the application process.

“You have to be prepared for the long haul,” she said. “It’s not a difficult thing, but like any grant, they keep asking for more information. There are a lot of little pieces involved.”

Maine independent Sen. Angus King, speaking on Maine Public after President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law March 11, said $100 million earmarked for Maine is not enough to bring broadband to the entire state, but added, “It’s a significant down payment.” He said it is almost 10 times greater than the $15 million bond approved last summer by voters to expand internet services across the state.

This is on top of $34 million coming to the state from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund administered by the Federal Communications Commission with a goal of closing the digital divide.

King said the money will go to the ConnectMaine Authority, and it will decide where the funding is most needed and how it is to be distributed.

“One of the biggest tasks is determining where the highest level of need is,” he said, adding that the current maps the Federal Communications Commission uses are not accurate. If there is one good broadband connection in an area, the agency assumes the entire census block should have access, which is not always the case.

Federal money is likely to be available within 60 to 90 days and King recommended paying close attention to what is going on in Augusta in terms of distribution.

“Get organized into a regional group,” he said, adding that the ConnectMaine Authority will be looking for projects that have local support and are coordinated broadly.

The state will be distributing the funds in the form of block grants and communities are encouraged to have residents take a speed test to let ConnectMaine know where broadband is lacking in Maine. To take the test and help define and advance broadband infrastructure improvements, visit mainebroadbandcoalition.org.