Small Aroostook town found way for every resident to have internet

10 months ago

EASTON, Maine — This Aroostook County town of about 1,300 people has expanded broadband internet access to every resident by combining funding sources and working with a provider that already had accounts in the town. 

The process took about 16 months, including six to eight months to get the town permits to install the utility poles needed for the broadband internet wires.

Some of the services now available to Easton residents are telehealth, especially for senior citizens who find it difficult to get to doctor appointments, connections to schools and social interaction for youths and access to remote work opportunities for families and professionals moving into the town.

Hillary Hallett, director for Easton’s Recreation Department, was one of the first 10 people to receive a broadband connection about six weeks ago. Hallett and her husband used hot spots on their phones for the last two to three years after leaving HughesNet. Hallett’s husband works as a truck broker and needs the internet for his work.

Small rural towns like Easton often have negligible or spotty internet service. Easton’s solution to expand broadband came at zero cost to taxpayers for installation and could be a formula for other Maine towns.

“We came into the 21st century, so my daughter, who is 11, has never known internet at our house,” Hallett said.

About 128 houses in Easton that didn’t have internet before are now hooked up. Installation was done by Spectrum, owned by Charter Communications, and its contractors.

The broadband expansion cost approximately $747,000, with $300,000 of the funding coming from the American Rescue Plan Act through the Aroostook County Commission, $275,000 from Spectrum and the balance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Jim Gardner, Easton town manager.

The town decided to use Spectrum to fill in the gaps because the company already had a big presence in Easton.

One of the broadband cable internet wires that had been installed at the corner of Fuller Road and Houlton Road in Easton as part of the towns broadband expansion that happened over the spring and summer. (Paul Bagnall | The Star-Herald)

“We’re all done. We have all of our wire that has been run and all of the activators have been set,” Gardner said. “We never [before] had the internet on the other side of 1A.”

About five big internet coverage gaps on major roads between Easton’s newly completed Village Acres subdivision on Station Road and properties east of 1A were closed with the new broadband hook-ups.

Everyone on the east side of 1A has been given a broadband connection, and some gaps in town have been filled, such as on Gray Road close to the border with Canada. The internet lines are above ground on new poles being installed to run service to rural residences.

Other gaps in internet service were on Fuller Road and parts of Forest Avenue, Hallett said.

“I think satellite services are good services. Don’t get me wrong. But they’re weather-interrupted and you have to have the right site,” Gardner said.

If residents wanted to run their own internet cable lines, it would have cost around $6,000 for each house, according to Gardner. It’s one reason Easton had gaps in its broadband coverage in the first place, he said.

Some of the people who had moved into Easton from places like New Jersey and Delaware loved the town but they, and the locals, wanted better broadband internet connections. The new connections could be an incentive to draw more people to move into the town, Gardner said.

Gardner’s was one of the last houses to receive broadband internet service at the end of the road he lives on in Easton.

Easton chose not to own the wire for broadband internet connections and left the maintenance up to Spectrum because the town’s public works department doesn’t have the skills to fix them if something goes wrong. Other towns like Houlton with Houlton Electric Co. and Van Buren with Van Buren Light & Power District, own their electric power, Gardner said.

“This has been a very long time coming, so it feels like we’ve finally accomplished something we promised our residents,” Hallett said.