It will cost around $ 27 million to extend broadband coverage to unserved areas of Piscataquis County, according to a new broadband planning report.
The Piscataquis County Economic Development Board continued the report, which cost $ 60,000 and began about three to four months ago. The council secured a $ 30,000 grant from the ConnectMaine Authority, which was matched with $ 30,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act to cities and municipalities to fund it.
Internet access in rural Maine has long been an issue for businesses and, more recently, for students sent home from schools for distance learning during COVID-19 outbreaks. The consultancy firm Casco Bay Advisors assessed the broadband infrastructure throughout Piscataquis County and identified the gaps and how to fill them. The report suggests building strong relationships with the community and creating a County Broadband Advisory Committee, along with securing sufficient funding, as next steps to improve broadband across the county.
“It’s time to set or revise your goals and your vision for what you want to accomplish in the county. … It is extremely important that every local community is engaged in this process, ”said Casco Bay Advisors President Brian Lippold, who presented the study results in a PCEDC webinar on Thursday.
The report focused on 33 towns and townships considered unserved – meaning they have no fiber-to-the-home or cable TV options – which were selected because a local telephone company provides service in areas.
Casco Bay Advisors also pulled data from the state’s 911 system to help identify the locations of potential subscribers, although the database is “notoriously inaccurate,” Lippold said. Those who worked on the report compared the data to aerial images to find locations without a 911 address.
“Then we go out into the field with these paper maps and drive every road and long driveway to make sure we have identified all the assets,” he said, adding that they noted the television infrastructure by. fiber optic cable and cables used for the transmission or provision of fiber optic services to the home.
The company then divided the 33 sites into three groups – the north, west / center, and east groups – based on networking considerations. Three sites were excluded from the report because they had too few subscribers or lacked commercial electricity distribution that could provide landline service, according to the report.
“We don’t want to try to find solutions on an individual city basis,” Lippold said. “These are 33 cities and townships that would be very, very difficult to serve everyone. If we look at them in groups, it increases the scale and service providers are more interested… in coming in and filling those gaps.
Casco Bay Advisors continued a similar project in Somerset County, where 58 towns and townships were divided into five groups. One group had most of the fiber optic in the homes. The county received offers from a service provider interested in serving three of the groups, and two more wanted to serve the entire county, Lippold said.
Lippold also presented GIS maps, which used four colors to highlight areas where there is fiber, television infrastructure, both fiber and television infrastructure, and unserved areas.
Almost 670 locations are considered “off-grid,” he said, although it’s hard to say if they’re occupied. The company takes note of the roads that lack energy distribution. It relies on 911 data and aerial images, which show size and details like vehicles in an aisle, to decide whether a location is a likely subscriber location.
“I would love to see an overlay in the number of children in schools who live in these homes,” Chris Maas, a Dover-Foxcroft resident and CPEDC board member, told the webinar.
The report also provides cost estimates, such as $ 400 per utility pole to prepare them for new attachments, and $ 25,000 per mile to install optical fiber on the optical backbone. Casco Bay Advisors assumes there are 33 utility poles per mile, based on past projects.
Potential strategies to extend the service to the 33 locations are included in the report. Funding for the project could come from a variety of sources, “with the private sector, federal, state and local governments each contributing an average of 25% of the costs,” the report said.
Lippold suggested that the county and municipalities look at funding for ARPA, as well as grants from the ConnectMaine Authority and the Maine Connectivity Authority. Piscataquis County receives approximately $ 3.2 million in ARPA funds.
The report breaks down a hypothetical funding strategy: private service providers would contribute 37%, state and federal funding 49%, Piscataquis County 7%, and local municipalities 7%.
Lesley Fernow, a Dover-Foxcroft resident and former president of Maine Highlands Senior Center, said internet access should be considered electricity when it becomes widely available across the country.
“What you’ve all been talking about is the business side. … The nature of the conversation implies that it is elective, that each community has a choice, ”she said. “I really think we should take this as an expectation that everyone [have it]. In the future, in the next five years, even now, you must have it.
For next steps, the report urges a Piscataquis County Broadband Advisory Committee made up of city leaders, community actors and business leaders; reserve available ARPA funding; and negotiating public-private partnerships with service providers.
John Shea, Executive Director of PCEDC, worked with selected local governments and boards to gain support and funding for the report. It was the easy part, Lippold said.
“It is difficult to involve all the cities in this next step,” he said, adding that on the flip side, some broadband expansion in Piscataquis County has worked city by city in the past. . “If you want to do it quickly… and as efficiently as possible, participating in a group is the best way to go. “
The report is available to the public and to municipalities. It will be posted on the Piscataquis Economic Development Council website.