The Center is working on several initiatives to improve high speed internet access in the rural communities of western Maine, ranging from downtown Wi-Fi hotspots in Rumford to new fiber connectivity in Sumner, Hartford and Hebron, to a training program that supports local broadband committees in 12 Maine counties.
High speed internet access and adoption is fundamental to making rural communities viable and attractive places to live and work – and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have only intensified demand for universal high-speed internet service.
The Center supports strategy and projects to improve internet accessibility in western Maine through the Maine West initiative – a collaboration with 14 local and state partners to address systemic rural challenges through increased collaboration across the economic, health, education, and conservation sectors.
Fiber to the Premises: High Speed Internet for Sumner, Hartford & Hebron
Residents, farmers and businesses in the Maine West communities of Sumner, Hartford and Hebron have long struggled with low quality internet service. Building on the Maine West planning process, and with support from the Center and Community Concepts Finance Corporation (CCFC), the three communities Sumner and Hebron formed local committees and connected with GWI, a Biddeford-based internet service provider to explore their options.
In partnership with the communities, in January 2020 GWI secured a nearly $7 million in grant and loan funding from the USDA ReConnect Program to build a gigabit fiber to the premises network that will make broadband internet connections available to 1,870 properties – including 1,594 residences, 276 businesses, 28 educational facilities, 15 health care centers and 12 critical community facilities.
Downtown Connections: Hotspots and Fiber in Downtown Rumford
Wi-Fi hotspots are a cost-effective way to increase public internet access in rural communities where coverage is sub-standard or completely unattainable.
The Center and CCFC are working with the town of Rumford to build a network of 5 Wi-Fi hotspots to serve the entire town center. The project will also support building high-speed fiber connections to 8 multi-use downtown buildings.
The Center also recently helped CCFC secure a Northern Border Regional Commission grant to support installation of Wi-Fi hotspots in 6 additional Maine West communities.
Maine West Broadband Boot Camp
Despite widespread public support for broadband expansion, many communities cannot address the issue directly because of competing priorities and limited understanding of technologies, financing strategies, and available resources. Committed local broadband committees have proven critical to success in communities across Maine and the nation.
The Center and CCFC are working with the ConnectMaine Authority, Maine Broadband Coalition, and Island Institute to provide technical assistance to emerging community broadband committees seeking to improve high-speed internet access and adoption in 12 Maine West Communities.
The seven-part program is connecting learning with action across four critical needs:
- Realize Benefits & Use: Understand and evaluate your community’s potential return on broadband investment across economic, educational, health and municipal services.
- Engage the Community: Form a working group, assess community needs and interests, identify near- and medium-term digital connectivity priorities.
- Assess Technology Options: Evaluate the costs and benefits of various technical approaches to local priorities – from new school computers to community-wide fiber networks.
- Fund Broadband Projects: Identify and pursue direct funding or financing for priority projects through state, federal, local, and philanthropic programs.
More than 60 people have signed up for the six-month training program, which runs through the end of the year and is intended to prepare communities to secure funding for project implementation in 2021. Sessions feature experts in internet technology and community organizing and also give participants the opportunity to learn from other communities. Four of the participating communities have secured grants to support their work from the Maine Community Foundation.
Based on the Maine West Broadband Technology & Digital Inclusion Plan
As a precursor to the current projects, the Center in 2017 secured a broadband planning grant from the ConnectMaine Authority to build strategies for expanding high speed internet access and adoption in the 27-town Maine West region. The year-long planning effort produced recommendations for a regional open access fiber optic loop, technology infrastructure plans for 20 communities, Wi-Fi Hotspots, and a digital inclusion plan to ensure more people in the region have the equipment, connectivity and skills to access the internet.
The Center is working in partnership with Community Concepts Finance Corporation (CCFC) and others to implement key elements of the Maine West Broadband Technology & Digital Inclusion plan. In addition to the three projects above, the Center has also helped 11 public libraries modernize their computer and internet services for public use and helped provide 200 mobile hotspots to area students who lacked home internet necessary to participate in distance learning.