SEARSMONT — Bringing faster, more reliable internet to western Waldo County has been the mission of Southwestern Waldo County Broadband Coalition for the last year or so. Broadband has improved by fits and starts, but speed, reliability and affordability continue to lag, according to Maine Development Foundation, a non-partisan organization promoting economic growth in the state.

According to Searsmont Select Board member Pete Milinazzo, who is also on the SWCBC board, the group has made some exciting progress in its effort to bring broadband to the five member towns of Freedom, Liberty, Montville, Palermo and Searsmont. In an email exchange, Milinazzo provided an outline of the work the coalition has accomplished since last fall.

Last September, the SWCBC completed a community survey in which 630 residents of the member towns took part, with interesting points raised. Among them, 11% of those who took the survey said they had no internet, primarily because there was no company providing the service or because it was too expensive.

Eighty-two percent of respondents said their internet provider was Consolidated Communications, and 56% said they experienced connectivity problems at least once a day. The quality got worse for 76% of those surveyed when more than one person in the household used the internet at a time.

About half of those  surveyed said they were using the internet for educational purposes; of that group, 7% said three or more people in the household were using it for education; 17% had two people; and 25% had one. Eighty percent of those who were using the internet for educational purposes used it for video meetings, while 67% of that group said they used it for email.

Forty-four percent of respondents said one person in the household used the internet for work, while 26% had two people online working and 4% had three or more. Of those working remotely, 92% use the internet for email, while 70% use it for video meetings.

When asked the average monthly charge for internet only, 32% said it was between $40 and $60, 23% said it was between $60 and $75, 29% said it was between $75 and $100 and 9% were paying between $100 and $150.

Another major step in the process of bringing broadband to the area is conducting a feasibility study. Axiom Technologies was hired as a consultant, and according to Milanazzo, the study should be completed by mid-March.

The coalition’s February newsletter said the cost of the study is $45,000, which will be paid for with American Rescue Plan Act monies at a cost of $9,000 per town. No municipal property tax funds will be used.

The five SWCBC towns have also received a combined $600,000-plus in ARPA funds, though none of the money has yet been allocated for broadband expansion. Waldo County still has more than $3,000,000 in unallocated ARPA funds, having distributed $100,000 of the $7,700,000 it received to the five SWCBC towns ($20,000 each), with no requirement from the county as to how the funds were to be used.

The four options currently under consideration for bringing broadband to the member towns include forming a nonprofit regional community-owned fiber network utility, forming a public-private partnership, providing incentives for an internet provider-owned network and going with a fixed wireless broadband network.

According to SWCBC talking points Milinazzo shared with The Republican Journal, a community-owned utility would have the most control in determining rates and services, but would also be the most expensive to fund. While the towns would need to manage the operation of the utility, an ISP would be hired for connectivity and maintenance. This option has the potential to provide a revenue source for the towns, with subscribers paying a fee. If the community-owned option is chosen, SWCBC will need community support and guidance to form an inter-local agreement.

A public-private partnership would be easier to fund than owning the utility outright and would share responsibilities with an ISP for connectivity and maintenance. Towns would need to participate in the operation and this option would have less community input in setting future rates and services offered.

Providing incentives to an ISP to build a fiber network would present a smaller financial commitment for the towns. The ISP would do all the work and towns would be tied to one vendor with little community control of future rates and services, the talking points say.

Fixed wireless broadband would carry the lowest potential cost and have faster implementation than the other options, but would also be tied to one vendor. This option might be less reliable and slower than a fiber network. Red Zone uses fixed wireless, and rather than new towers, it would erect repeaters on small poles to support broadband access.

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