BIDDEFORD — On Thursday, Jan. 30, Governor Janet Mills accompanied Development Deputy Under Secretary D.J. LaVoy to the Arrowsic Volunteer Fire Station where he announced nearly $10 million in federal funds will be dispersed to Maine to help bring high-speed, broadband internet to more residents, businesses and others in rural areas.

The $9.87 million from the USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program will be invested in four infrastructure projects that will create or improve rural e-Connectivity for 4,527 households and 215 businesses in rural Maine. The announcement was one of many in the first round of USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program investments.

The lion’s share of the funds, $7 million, goes to Biddeford-based Greater Works Internet, better known as GWI. Legally named, the Biddeford Internet Corporation, GWI will use a $3.5 million ReConnect Program grant and a $3.5 million ReConnect Program loan to expand its current gigabit Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) network to connect 4,084 households, 30 pre-subscribed farms, 28 educational facilities, 23 pre-subscribed businesses, 15 health care centers, and 12 critical community facilities primarily in Hebron, Sumner and Hartford in Oxford County, and to a much smaller extent in Buckfield, Canton, North Turner, Turner, South Paris, and West Paris, according to GWI CEO Fletcher Kittredge.

“These places don’t have have broadband, they have dial-up or real slow DSL. … These places don’t have cable or much of anything at all,” he said.
Kittredge predicts when the network is built in these rural areas it will have a huge impact.

Evidence shows “there is a lot more economic activity after the network is up and running,” he said. “There’s a lot of evidence (that high speed broadband) has a very positive impact on (rural) economies, has a very strong impact on home businesses and telecommunting, a real impact on telehealth, and a positive impact on education and municipal government.”

LaVoy agreed. “This substantial investment in broadband in Maine will help ensure that these rural, coastal, and island communities can connect to the vital internet services that they depend on,” he said. “Upgrading and installing essential broadband infrastructure will improve connectivity for critical first responders and rural businesses. It also will enhance learning opportunities for students, provide access to telehealth services and build prosperity for Maine’s iconic towns.”

Maine state and national leaders said they were please with the funds coming to the state. “High-speed internet is no longer a luxury; it is an economic necessity,” said Governor Janet Mills. “As we work to strengthen and diversify our economy, building out our broadband capacity will play an important role and this funding represents another welcome step forward.”

“Communities in Maine are in need of reliable broadband infrastructure in order to compete in an increasingly digital economy,” said Senators Susan Collins and Angus King. “With this important funding, rural towns throughout the state will be able to deploy high-speed broadband and fiber networks that will serve their residents for decades to come, enhance digital inclusion, and enable the many economic and social opportunities that are only made possible by 21st century connectivity.”

“Maine is the most rural state in the nation and ranks 49th in broadband access, which is a utility just as important as electricity or running water for rural Mainers and small businesses,” Congresswoman Chellie Pingree said. “Increased connectivity is a cornerstone of Maine’s future successes and I’m thrilled to see almost $10 million come to rural Maine communities that need the extra boost.”

In addition to the funds GWI will receive, the Town of Arrowsic will use a $604,254 ReConnect Program grant and a $604,254 ReConnect Program loan to construct a fiber-optic broadband network to connect 237 households, 20 pre-subscribed businesses, and four pre-subscribed farms; Monhegan Plantation will use a $626,298 ReConnect Program grant to connect the entire island community in Lincoln County, which is home to a school, power district, municipal office, museum, post office, library, and several inns and small businesses, and includes 40 households, an educational facility, a critical community facility, 11 pre-subscribed farms, and 15 pre-subscribed businesses; and the Town of Roque Bluffs will use an $893,170 ReConnect Program grant to construct a fiber-optic network to connect 166 households, 22 pre-subscribed farms, and 16 pre-subscribed businesses in Washington County. The network will connect to the Downeast Ring of Maine’s “three-ring binder” network backbone in Machias, 4.5 miles from the town line on Roque Bluffs Road.

The network his company will build out in Oxford County will also connect to the three-ring binder, Kittredge said, a broadband project his company was instrumental in bringing to Maine.

GWI applied for the federal grant that provided $25.6 million, the majority of funding for the three-ring binder project. The project, that was completed in 2012, was built by Maine Fiber Company.

The three-ring binder consists of an 1,100 mile fiber optic network that provides the “middle-mile” of connectivity that reaches from Fort Kent to South Berwick.
Being able to connect rural areas like Sumner, Hartford and Hebron was part of what was envisioned when the three-ring binder project was formulated, Kittredge said.
The ReConnect program provides funding for the “last-mile” fiber solutions that are necessary to fully realize the benefits of end-to-end fiber optic connectivity and broadband delivery.

When the Oxford County broadband network will be completed is unclear. Kittredge said he predicts the build out will be completed “12 to 18 months after all of the paper work and processes are worked out with the federal government.” However, he said, “we don’t know how long that will take,” adding that working with the federal government “takes a long time.”

In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to the USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America, which are the funds used for the ReConnect program. The USDA received 146 applications between May 31 and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in funding across all three ReConnect Program funding products: 100 percent loan, 100 percent grant, and loan-grant combinations. The USDA is reviewing applications and announcing approved projects on a rolling basis. Additional investments in all three categories will be made in the coming weeks.

These funds enable the federal government to partner with the private sector and rural communities to build modern broadband infrastructure in areas with insufficient internet service. Insufficient service is defined as connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload.

An additional $550 million in ReConnect funding will be made available this year.

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