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.
In August, the Center and Northern Woodlands magazine released two new videos in the North Country Calling video series, which profiles young professionals who have chosen the Northern Forest as their home.
The future of our region hinges on young people like these — individuals who have sought and found a satisfying blend of work, community, fun and friends in rural communities. We’re excited to share two more stories about the rewarding lives each of our subjects has created for themselves and hope their stories will inspire other young people to make their homes in the Northern Forest.
Here’s a glimpse of the people you’ll meet:
- Sierra Giraud, a forester in Lancaster, NH, feels a strong connection to the woods through her work and her exploration of the natural world on the weekends.
- John Moses traded high-priced, West Coast city living for a rewarding job in a sawmill and a home of his own near the mountains of northern New Hampshire.
- Rachel Freierman has put down roots in the White Mountains, where she works as an outdoor educator and runs a small farm in Bartlett, NH.
- Helon Hoffer hikes to his work as a trail manager for the US Forest Service. He is passionate about skiing, biking and taking his young children outside to explore.
Our filmmaker, Asher Brown of Lyme, NH, is a recent graduate of Middlebury College. He spent a day with each of our subjects and has captured their enthusiasm for challenging careers related to the region’s working landscape.
At the Center, we believe in the potential of the region’s communities, people and landscape to support a New Forest Future. Take a look at these short films to see the New Forest Future in action.
Please share the videos with family, friends, and your social networks.
In response, Maine West, a coalition of local and regional groups, is providing mobile hotspots to help students in the Oxford Hills, the Bethel area, and the Rumford and River Valley areas to connect to online learning services.
“Schools have always called this the ‘homework gap,’” said Mike Wilson, senior program director of the Northern Forest Center, and coordinator of the Maine West coalition. “Lack of home internet connection keeps too many students from connecting with teachers, conducting research, and completing assignments. For many students and families, the sudden COVID-19 school closures expanded the homework gap into a canyon.”
The Maine West partnership began working in March to secure and distribute mobile hotspot devices that turn cellular phone signals into home wireless internet connections. With leadership by the Center and Community Concepts Finance Corporation, Maine West is now providing 200 mobile hotspots to enable students in the Oxford Hills (SAD 17), Bethel area (SAD 44), and the Rumford and River Valley areas (RSU 10 and 56) to make the crucial connection to the internet and online school services.
“The support from Maine West to provide these mobile hotspots for some of our families has greatly enhanced our ability to connect to all students during these challenging times,” said David Murphy, Superintendent of Schools in SAD 44 serving the Bethel area. “We were thrilled to receive these devices in a such timely fashion and to be able to provide additional remote learning support for the families and students who needed it the most.”
Within three weeks of the school shut-downs, Maine West raised more than $10,000 and built a partnership with the Maine-based National Digital Equity Center to provide area schools with mobile hotspots through the end of the school year. Project funding was provided by the Betterment Fund, the Northern Forest Center, and The River Fund Maine.
“Our hats are off to Maine West for recognizing this need and immediately putting together a program to help students during the COVID-19 shutdown,” said Jim Largess, director of The River Fund Maine. “We initially were focused on making sure internet cost was not a barrier for Bethel area students. Partnering with Maine West allowed us to expand that focus to students who simply don’t have home internet availability without a mobile hotspot.”
In addition to serving K-12 schools, the Maine West hotspot initiative is also supporting non-traditional learners such as Alana Bracket through adult education programs and the University College Centers in Rumford and South Paris.
Bracket, recipient of the Osher New Beginnings Scholarship, is a first-time college student at the University College Center in South Paris. She said she would not have been able to complete her very first college course this spring without the mobile hotspot provided by Maine West.
“High speed internet simply isn’t available for many people in rural communities, and others aren’t able to afford a home internet connection,” says Mia Purcell, vice president of economic development and impact at Community Concepts Finance Corporation. “No matter the reason, and particularly right now, no student should be prevented from learning because they can’t connect to the internet.”
Broadband Access and Adoption is one of three priority focal areas identified by Maine West partners as key to addressing persistent rural community challenges. The other priorities are Educational Aspirations and Active Communities. As part of the Maine West initiative, in 2019 the Northern Forest Center supported the purchase and installation of new computers, software, printers and wireless internet connections for 11 public libraries serving the Maine West region.
“Universal and affordable high-speed internet connectivity is vital to the success of rural communities in western Maine and across the state,” said the Center’s Wilson.
“As happy as we are to be helping rural students get connected to school during the COVID-19 shut down,” said Wilson, “we realize this is a temporary fix. The only way to truly address the digital divide is to start treating internet connectivity more like a utility and making it accessible and affordable for everyone.”
Maine West is a partnership of local and regional organizations dedicated to addressing systemic rural challenges and enhancing community well-being in western Maine through increased collaboration across the economic, education, health and conservation sectors.
With program coordination by the Northern Forest Center, Maine West partners include Community Concepts Finance Corp., Appalachian Mountain Club, Androscoggin River Watershed Council, Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, CORE, Mahoosuc Pathways, The Trust for Public Land, Oxford County Wellness Collaborative, Western Foothills Land Trust, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, The University of Maine 4-H Center at Bryant Pond, Mahoosuc Land Trust, Region 9 Adult Education, Oxford County Resiliency Project, and River Valley Healthy Communities Coalition.
Top photo: Bethel School District staff deliver mobile hotspots to the Rumford School District for its students. Middle photo: Alana Bracket, a student in the adult education program at the University College Center in South Paris, was able to finish her first-ever college course because she received a hotspot for home internet connection. Bottom photo: Nathan Bellanceau of Locke Mills is one of several students in the Region 9 Adult Education Program who received a mobile hotspot.