Grants will bring high-speed Internet to 16,000 homes and businesses in rural Maine

Dan Daggett has deep roots in Brookton, a small town in Washington County, where he and his family run a financial consulting business. On Wednesday, he had a successful Zoom call with two other people in other parts of the country. The day before, he had to cancel several meetings because his unreliable internet failed for several hours.

These connectivity issues should soon be a thing of the past. Brookton and 10 surrounding communities will get high-speed broadband through an $8.1 million grant announced by the Maine Connectivity Authority this week.

“This new service is just going to make our lives easier,” Daggett said.

Maine’s broadband agency awarded a total of $34 million in federal funds to 12 projects that will bring the state closer to its goal: to make high-speed Internet available to everyone who wants it by the end of 2024.

About 116,000 homes and businesses in Maine — nearly 18% of the state — don’t have broadband service, according to federal data. The grants announced Wednesday will expand service to more than 16,000 homes and businesses in 31 cities across nine counties.

“This is the largest single investment in digital broadband infrastructure ever made in the state,” said Andrew Butcher, president of the Maine Connectivity Authority. “And in some ways we’re just getting started. It’s incredibly exciting to think about providing 16,000 connections to those who don’t have broadband right now. It’s a huge investment in our rural economy and in rural areas that would benefit so much from this kind of provision of funds and infrastructure.”

The Maine Connectivity Authority is a quasi-governmental agency formed by the Legislature in 2021 to direct a massive influx of federal dollars to improve broadband access. Previously, the ConnectMaine Authority operated for 15 years, administering $750,000 to $1 million annually in grants to improve broadband access. But that agency never had enough money to make the extensive investments needed to fully connect poor and rural communities. By comparison, the newer agency has committed to spend $150 million from the American Rescue Plan Act and expects to receive more than $230 million from another federal infrastructure program.

The “Connect the Ready” grants announced Wednesday come from the American Rescue Plan Act and complement $17 million in private investment from communities and service providers. The program was highly competitive and received 29 applications totaling $102 million in requests. The board will award a second grant round in the spring.

The “Connect the Ready” program awarded money to projects that are ready to build, but the Maine Connectivity Authority also provides grants to help communities with earlier-stage engineering planning and to encourage “last mile” service by incentivizing internet providers to bring existing broadband just a little further up the road to individual homes and businesses.

“This investment signals that we are very much on the right track,” Butcher said.

“The key to success will be creating a diversity of strategies and investments,” he added. “We’re prioritizing underserved rural areas, and we’re laying the groundwork for regional-scale readiness for long-term future investment.”

In Brookton, the grant is the result of years of planning, community input and collaboration. The Greater East Grand Region Economic Council is a nonprofit organization formed by residents of remote communities on the fringes of Aroostook, Washington and Penobscot counties. Sarah Strickland, the council’s financial director, said they started working on this project when they realized that better broadband service was key to all their financial goals, and the COVID-19 pandemic only made that goal more urgent. The lack of high-speed Internet hampers children trying to do their homework, adults trying to access telehealth services, business owners trying to build their brands or just order supplies.

“It’s really going to make a huge difference in so many ways,” she said. One person wrote to Strickland about the news: “I can’t tell you how excited my teenage kids are.”

Daggett, who was recently elected chairman of the council, has long family ties to Brookton but lived most of his life near Bath and Brunswick. He started his company just before the COVID-19 pandemic began. He and his wife finally moved to Brookton, and he hopes the more reliable broadband network that will be built by Consolidated Communications over 18 months will prompt others to do the same.

“A lot of those people might be able to spend more time here and spend more of those dollars in our region as opposed to going back to wherever they’re from,” he said. “Coming out of the pandemic more than ever has shown us that you don’t necessarily have to live where you work. Remote work is an option.”

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