Aroostook forming committee to evaluate broadband expansion

3 years ago

MADAWASKA, Maine — A committee to consider the future of broadband in Aroostook County is looking for more participants from across the region as it begins an evaluation of how to expand high-speed internet access.

The committee formed after a late-June meeting between representatives from local businesses and government, the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development and U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. The effort is being led jointly by Paul Towle of Aroostook Partnership and County Administrator Ryan Pelletier as a public-private endeavor.

Pelletier said the committee is seeking community members to improve their understanding of internet needs across diverse geographic areas and lifestyles — stay-at-home parents and small business owners alike. And there’s no need to be a broadband expert. 

“We want everybody,” Pelletier said. “At the end of the day, from our viewpoint it’s no different from the next utility — water and electricity and sewer … We feel like broadband is right there with that.”

As it is throughout rural Maine, The County’s internet is lagging behind standard, according to data from the Maine Broadband Coalition. 

At fixed points of access to the web — think wifi and ethernet ports — between a third and a half of reported locations show slow or no service. The picture for cell phone access is more dire, with more than two-thirds of locations reporting very slow service speeds. 

With people counting on the internet to do everything from process transactions to attend telehealth appointments, service this poor is no longer acceptable, Pelletier said.

Potential solutions could include from establishing broadband as a new public utility, to incorporating it into a preexisting one — for example combining sewer and broadband services under one department. Across Maine, rural communities have begun similar undertakings to dig themselves out of internet dead zones. 

With $120 million of federal stimulus money coming to Maine specifically to reckon with broadband shortcomings, the potential to act on these needs is growing significantly. On top of that, Maine voters approved a first-of-its-kind $15 million bond last June to fund broadband infrastructure projects.

Aroostook County’s committee will meet semi-regularly via video chat or in-person — Pelletier estimated twice a month to start and then less often as time goes on. People interested in participating can email Towle or Pelletier for more details.