BELFAST — Representatives from several western Waldo towns, along with two Northport internet committee members, met July 7 with county commissioners to discuss their progress so far in bringing broadband to their communities. The groups asked officials to consider supporting their projects with any available county money.

With a mission to bring high-speed internet to several rural towns, Southwestern Waldo County Broadband Coalition encompasses the unserved or underserved municipalities of Freedom, Palermo, Montville, Liberty and Searsmont. “Our goal is affordable broadband to all,” said Bob Kurek, Palermo selectman and coalition member.

Another coalition member said the group’s intentions were to be prepared to take advantage once funds earmarked for high-speed internet infrastructure become available. “If we are sitting on our hands, if we are not organized, somebody else will be first in line,” he said.

Currently the coalition is exploring the option of forming a nonprofit regional municipal utility organization where the five towns would enter into an interlocal agreement, making them owners of the network. The governing board would then negotiate with an outside internet service provider to run operations and provide customer service.

Another option, they said, would be to approach ISPs and say “We have these subsidies, what can you do for us?” In this case towns could receive or apply for federal and state grants to supplement the ISP’s costs to run fiber. Any financial support would be based on the condition that all the residents are served and not just those in the most populated areas or those who can afford to pay the costs of running fiber.

A third option, a countywide fiber network, was also presented to commissioners. In that scenario, the county would partner with towns and provide municipalities with a county-owned broadband option. Coalition members cited as inspiration a recent Vermont program where several counties banded together to provide a regional  network to every household in the district.

Once costs for building the infrastructure, maintenance and bonds are paid, one coalition member said, the network could become a source of income that could be used to pay for operations and upgrades or could generate revenue for cities and towns. “Once the bonds are paid off, the (regional utility) board can determine what to do with those funds,” he said.

After  the coalition decides which route to pursue, it will be seeking grant funds to do a feasibility study. Currently the group is continuing to spread the word about its efforts and encouraging community members from Freedom, Liberty, Montville, Palermo and Searsmont to take a survey (surveymonkey.com/r/SWCBCsurvey) to help refine their goals and determine satisfaction with available internet service in the area.

Ann Frenning Kossuth, chairman of Northport’s internet committee, said besides being an economic, educational and medical issue, broadband should be treated as a utility at this point. “To deny towns this essential tool is really wrong,” she said.

Kossuth said Northport has joined a coalition with several other towns, including Camden, Hope, Lincolnville, Rockland, Rockport, South Thomaston and Thomaston, that want to bring broadband to their communities. After a private build provided some Bayside residents and businesses the option to tap into fiber that runs along Route 1, Northport needs help connecting the remaining 55% of homes, she said.

Commissioner Amy Fowler said she was impressed and “blown away” by the groups’ thoroughness. “You guys have really done your homework,” she said, and added that “nothing is off the table right now.”

Reached by phone, Fowler said the representatives “had a lot of great ideas.” While they did not ask for a specific amount of funding, their ideas, she said, have potential. The countywide utility proposal was the first time the idea had been brought up and commissioners asked the group to provide more information about the Vermont program.

Fowler said she appreciated that the groups’ efforts were centered around providing services so everyone can benefit. The commissioners will take everything put forth into consideration, she said. “We need to be good stewards,” she added. “We need some time to get up to speed.” At next month’s meeting, she said, “we can regroup.”

There are several funding possibilities right now, including federal, state and county monies. “It’s a matter of who’s got what and who’s giving out what, when.” With appropriated funds not yet released, it is also a case of “hurry up and wait,” Fowler said.