Franklin County group snags $43,000 grant to study broadband access
FARMINGTON — A group seeking to study broadband access across Franklin County and part of Androscoggin County received a £43,000 grant Friday from the state’s ConnectME Authority. The Franklin County Broadband Initiative, a collective of organizations including the Opportunity Center of North Franklin County, the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, the Greater Franklin Development Council and the Rangeley Economic Opportunity Committee, will use the state money and an additional £43,000 raised by local municipalities to fund a six-month comprehensive review of current broadband access across all 22 Franklin County towns, as well as Livermore Falls in Androscoggin County. Results from the study should be available in January 2018, said Charles Woodworth, a community representative for the initiative.
The award culminates months of work by the group to raise awareness about the role broadband plays in educational and economic development and to garner support for the group’s grant application. As part of that effort, the initiative held communitywide meetings in Farmington, Kingfield, Phillips and Rangeley as well as an additional 17 meetings with town boards of selectmen and other stakeholders to discuss their intentions for the grant. At those meetings, Woodworth said, it was the personal stories that really galvanized community support for the application.
By the time it submitted the application to the state this month, he said, the group had support from every school district, elected official and town in the study’s proposed coverage area. “We had great turnout and very broad representation from educators, businesses, students and parents saying, ‘We don’t have internet, our children’s homework assignments are online and I’ve got to drive in town and park outside the library to collect the Wi-Fi while my son or daughter does their homework in the cab of the truck,'” Woodworth said. “We got to hear what current conditions are like, and it became very apparent what needs to happen.” Woodworth said the purpose of the initiative’s study will be to help towns identify their broadband needs, see how those needs fit into each town’s comprehensive plan and inform the municipalities’ next steps on broadband infrastructure.
The study should be completed in time for next year’s annual town meetings, giving local governments time to pull together plans for financing they can put before voters. Unlike utilities such as electricity or telephone service, broadband is not regulated by the federal or state governments, leaving it up to broadband providers to determine whether to bring service to an area. In working out their financial calculations, many broadband providers say it is simply not cost-effective to lay broadband networks in less populated rural regions.
Enter entities such as ConnectME, a state broadband authority that uses fees it collects from landline services to supplement local broadband projects. The Franklin County grant was one of 13 infrastructure and planning grants the ConnectME Authority awarded in its latest round of applications. The agency typically accepts grant applications once a year and helps fund broadband planning and infrastructure implementation across the state, where its grants often act as gap funding for municipal broadband projects.
The grants are contingent on additional municipal or broadband provider funding. In the case of the Franklin County grant, 50 percent of funding for the study will be raised by towns, while the other 50 percent will be provided by the authority. From 2006, when it was established by the Legislature, to 2016, the ConnectME Authority has awarded £11.3 million in grants toward broadband projects totaling £21.4 million.
Those projects had the potential to expand broadband access to 38,971 additional households and businesses across the state, said David Maxwell, a program director for ConnectME. Maxwell said the take rate, or adoption rate among those given access to new broadband connections, hovers around 75 percent. In its latest round of the grants, the agency provided about £480,500 toward another 699 potential connections.
It granted around £159,600 in additional funding for local planning efforts such as the Franklin County study. Even with the agency’s efforts, however, there are still around 30,000 households in Maine that do not have broadband access. When considering grant applications, Maxwell said, the ConnectME board prioritizes collaborative efforts across multiple communities that have the potential to maximize the funding’s impact.
Maxwell said the board gave a lot of weight to the ambitious scope and the amount of support the Franklin County group was able to bring to its project. “They really gave it the all-out push to present a plan that they hoped would convince the board, and it did,” Maxwell said. “They had tremendous support.” Moving forward, Woodward sees plenty of opportunities for collaboration as Franklin County works to modernize its internet infrastructure.
As more Mainers realize the importance of high-speed internet access, he hopes to see them working together across towns and counties to bring broadband to Maine’s rural communities. “Franklin County is rural Maine, rural America; and if we want to have a chance at growing and at economic development, we need to be connected to the 21st century,” Woodworth said. Kate McCormick — 861-9218