SANFORD — SanfordNet Fiber – a 10-gig, 32-mile, municipal high-speed fiber optic network project – just got the engine boost it needs to take off.

The federal Economic Development Administration on Thursday announced that the city had won a $769,000 grant to help build the network that will serve 83 existing business and public institutions – and a whole lot more.

The federal grant, coupled with another $769,000 that the city will invest from the sale of the former Emerson School property on Main Street, fully finances the $1.5 million project.

While the design has to be fine-tuned and a host of other pre-construction work needs to be completed, city officials say Sanford’s new information highway could be complete by this time next year, give or take a month or two.

The 32-mile project is the first major new fiber loop to be built to significantly extend the 3-Ring Binder, an open access fiber optic network intended to connect rural, disadvantaged, unserved and under-served communities in the state.

“We’re creating the fourth ring on the 3-Ring Binder,” said City Manager Steve Buck.

Sanford Regional Economic Growth Director Jim Nimon said the availability of high-speed broadband for the transmission of information is vital to economic development.

“We definitely want to be the go-to place” for companies looking for locations, said Nimon.

And while the open access, non-discriminatory project is designed to meet the needs of businesses, Buck said he knows it will expand.

“We know by (our) building this backbone, private investment will expand this base system to residential and other markets,” he said Thursday afternoon. The city will set rates to lease space to other networks, which in turn will roll it out to homeowners and others, he said.

“I see this is as the great equalizer,” said Buck, pointing out that Sanford has no easy access to I-95 and the Maine Turnpike. “This is our highway. We’ve created the off-ramp that doesn’t (currently) exist.”

Sanford announced its plans to build the system a year ago at the Digital New England conference, hosted by Next Century Cities and Broadband USA in Portland. At that time, there was a plan, but no funding.

But Sanford made the announcement anyway, confident that somehow, a funding source to help swell the city’s contribution would emerge.

“The sheer size and scope of this undertaking is impressive, and that’s what I love about it,” said Mayor Tom Cote in a statement released Thursday night. “It is a bold move that will make Sanford a technological standout in the Northeast, and very attractive as a place to start, modernize or move a business.”

“With the SanfordNet Fiber project set to launch, with Maine’s largest high school and technical center currently under construction and with the plans wrapping up for development of Maine’s largest solar project at our airport, Sanford is signaling that it is well on its way to changing its identity from former mill town to cutting-edge community in the fields of technology, education and renewable energy,” Cote continued. “This is a great time to be living and working in Sanford Maine.”

Sanford will own the system, and GWI, a Maineowned, Biddeford-based Internet services provider, will operate it. NextGen Telecom Services Group, a fiber optic network contractor based in Rochester, New Hampshire, will build it.

The new system will join the 3-Ring binder in Wells.

Buck and Nimon on Thursday said the design will be fine-tuned, and the city will undertake licensing and pole attachment agreements with existing utilities on 1,300 utility poles as well as complete other tasks before construction can begin.

Nimon said the economic growth council is ready.

“We’ll all be rolling up our sleeves, and doing our part to get this critical fiber construction project completed,” he said.

It’s a project that has been in the making since at least 2014, when the economic growth council hired Tilson Technology Management to conduct a feasibility study. There were requests for proposals from internet service providers – 22 in all – for design, and dozens of other details.

The city applied for EDA finding for the next fiscal year. But a few weeks ago, they got a non-binding hint from EDA that things looked quite good for this fiscal year.

On Thursday, U.S. senators Susan Collins and Angus King, along with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, announced the news.

“Access to the Internet is a vital resource that can connect Maine people to the information and opportunities they need to succeed in today’s digital world,” said Collins and King in a joint statement. “This funding is a significant investment in Maine broadband infrastructure and the future of the Sanford area.”

The broadband project will bolster entrepreneurship within the Mill Yard complex and a 600-acre industrial park, and improve Sanford’s commercial and industrial competitiveness, the senators said.

At the outset, the project is expected to create more than 140 jobs in private industry, according to surveys conducted by the city, and leverage more than $1 million in private investment.

That investment, city officials believe, is just the beginning.

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at [email protected] (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, ext. 327 or [email protected]

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