BRIDGTON — More than 45% of Cumberland County households with poor broadband access are from the nine towns covered by the Lakes Region Weekly, according to the ConnectMaine Authority, but for those households some internet relief may be on the horizon.

With the statewide approval July 14 of the $15 million bond issue for broadband expansion, towns in the unserved areas can apply for a ConnectMaine grant to expand broadband in their neighborhoods that need it.

Poor access to broadband, which is the means by which devices like laptops and cellphones connect to the internet, can be a major hurdle to remote learning, accessing health care, expanding a business and more, said Rep. Walter Riseman, I-Harrison, who is working with residents and local officials in the region to apply for the grants.

Among the towns he is working with is Bridgton, which has the highest number of unserved households in the Lakes Region at 129 and the second highest in all of Cumberland County.

A map from the ConnectMaine Authority illustrates roughly what areas of the state have limited or no broadband access. ConnectMaine Authority

The only municipality in the county with a higher number of unserved addresses in the county is Long Island, which has 243 households with poor broadband access.

Bridgton is part of the Lake Region School District, where 95% of the member households have internet access, according to Joshua Sturk, SAD 61 technology director. However, when remote learning went into effect this spring because of the coronavirus, the district quickly learned that access does not always equate with adequate, he said.

“A lot of people in our community said it was very difficult to do synchronist learning because of the speed of their internet,” Sturk said.

The $15 million bond issue is just the first chunk in the $600 million in unmet needs that ConnectMaine, an authority created by state government to facilitate universal availability of broadband to all Maine households and businesses, identified in an action plan it published last year, said Executive Director Peggy Schaffer.

The $15 million is the first large sum of funding that the authority has received from the state in 14 years, Schaffer said. Typically it receives about $1 million a year.

“(There’s a) significant need out there. The towns that (the Lakes Region Weekly) serves are a great example of those needs,” Schaffer said.

Now that the bond issue has passed, Schaffer said it is up to individual communities to identify their needs and apply for a grant from ConnectMaine.

There are “well over 150 communities” who have convened planning committees, Schaffer said.

Riseman said he first started digging into the broadband issue back in May, when he learned of Harrison residents’ complaints that their internet coverage was so poor, they couldn’t even get online.

Since then he’s helped form committees across the towns of Bridgton, Harrison and Denmark of residents and local officials, including Bridgton Community Development Director Linda LaCroix, that are now working on applying for a grant from ConnectMaine.

But there is work to do before applying for a grant, he said, such as identifying “exactly” what the towns’ broadband issues are.

“It could range from not getting any service to inadequate service, taking into consideration why you want better broadband … Access is economic. For example, we have a little brewery in (Harrison) who’s trying to expand their business using the internet and they can’t get adequate coverage out there.”

Another area of need is telehealth, Riseman said, adding that he’s spoken to Bridgton Hospital President Peter Wright about their needs.

“It’s vital, really,” he said.

LaCroix said the working group is participating in a “Broadband Bootcamp,” hosted by Maine West, a western Maine partnership. The free virtual program is being led by Mia Purcell of the Community Concepts Finance Corporation in South Paris, and will meet seven times between now and December. The boot camp will provide local groups with the training and technical knowledge to assess their own broadband needs and create a plan of action.

“Bridgton and its larger towns (are) trying to do two things: do something in the short-term if we can, (such as) hotspots … and then longer-term things that take infrastructure,” LaCroix said.

“The ideal for our towns is to (get) everyone access and be connected.”

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