The grants will bring high-speed Internet to 16,000 homes and businesses in rural Maine

Dan Daggett has deep roots in Brookton, a small town in Washington County, where he and his family run a financial services consulting business. On Wednesday, he had a successful Zoom call with two others in other parts of the country. The day before, he had to cancel several meetings because his unreliable internet failed for a few hours.

These connection problems should soon be a thing of the past. Brookton and 10 surrounding communities will get high-speed broadband through an $8.1 million grant announced this week by the Maine Connectivity Authority.

“This new service will make our lives easier,” Daggett said.

Maine’s broadband agency has awarded a total of $34 million in federal funds to 12 projects that will move the state closer to its goal of making high-speed Internet available to everyone who wants it by the end of 2024.

About 116,000 homes and businesses in Maine — almost 18% of the state — don’t have broadband service, according to federal data. The grants announced Wednesday will serve more than 16,000 homes and businesses in 31 cities across nine counties.

“This is the largest single investment in digital broadband infrastructure ever made in the state,” said Andrew Butcher, president of the Maine Communications Authority. “And in some ways, we’re just getting started. It’s incredibly exciting to think about providing 16,000 connections to those who don’t currently have broadband. This is a great investment in our rural economy and rural communities that can benefit from such an infusion of funds and infrastructure.”

The Maine Connectivity Authority is a quasi-governmental agency created by the Legislature in 2021 to administer a large influx of federal dollars to improve broadband access. Previously, the ConnectMaine Authority operated for 15 years and awarded $750,000 to $1 million in grants annually to improve broadband access. But the agency has never had enough money to make the massive investments needed to fully integrate poor and rural communities. By comparison, the new agency has committed to spending $150 million from the American Rescue Plan Act and expects to receive more than $230 million from another federal infrastructure program.

The Connect Now grants announced Wednesday come from the American Rescue Plan Act and add to $17 million in private investment from communities and service providers. The program was highly competitive and received 29 applications totaling $102 million. The agency will award a second round of grants this spring.

The Connect Ready program awarded cash to ready-to-build projects, but the Maine Connectivity Authority awards grants to help communities in earlier stages with technical planning and to promote “last mile” service by encouraging ISPs to acquire existing projects. just off the road to private homes and businesses with broadband.

“This investment shows we’re on track,” Butcher said.

“The key to success will be creating different strategies and investments,” he said. “We are prioritizing underserved rural areas and laying the foundation for regional-scale readiness for long-term future investment.”

In Brookton, the grant is the result of years of planning, community input and collaboration. The Greater East Greater Area Economic Council is a non-profit organization founded by residents of remote communities on the outskirts of Aroostook, Washington and Penobscot counties. Sarah Strickland, the council’s economic director, said they started working on the project when they realized that better broadband was key to all of their economic goals and that the COVID-19 pandemic only made that goal more urgent. A lack of high-speed Internet hinders children trying to do homework, adults trying to access telehealth services, business owners trying to build their brand or simply order supplies.

“It’s really going to make a huge difference in a lot of ways,” he said. One person wrote to Strickland about the news: “I can’t tell you how excited my teenage kids are.”

Daggett, who was recently elected council president, has long family ties to Brookton but has spent most of her life near Bath and Brunswick. He started his company before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. He and his wife eventually moved to Brookton permanently, and hopes the more reliable broadband network to be installed by Consolidated Communications in 18 months will encourage others to do the same.

“Many of these people can spend more time here and spend more money in our region instead of going back to where they came from,” he said. “More than ever, coming out of the pandemic has shown us that you don’t have to live where you work. It is also possible to work remotely.”

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