Farmington and Benton town officials are seeking to expand Maine broadband access through an experimental federal grant program aimed at bringing high-speed Internet access to rural areas.

The Federal Communications Commission recently offered broadband expansion grants under the Connect America Fund, to new types of entities, including towns and cities. Until recently, the funding was reserved for large telephone companies to provide broadband to unserved and underserved areas. Phone and cable companies have extended high speed broadband access at their discretion, leaving many rural residents without access because the sparsely populated areas don’t have enough customers to create a market.

The Office of the Public Advocate, which represents utility service users, has not been alerted to any major expansion plans by FairPoint or Time Warner, so town and city officials were told that they may be the best option for expanding broadband access.

“It’s the first time the FCC has realized that maybe phone companies are not the only way to do this,” said Wayne Jortner, senior counsel for the Maine Office of the Public Advocate. “We have small providers that are much more motivated to do whatever they can.”

The FCC has requested letters from parties interested in the grants, and responding were 19 Maine applicants — along with nearly 1,000 nationwide. Maine project proposals range from $725,000 from Lincolnville Communications to $54 million from Networkmaine.

Towns have a broad range of reasons for being interested in high-speed Internet access, from economic development, to resident retention and attraction, to tourism.

Farmington Town Manager Richard Davis said the town proposed a $4 million broadband expansion, including a possible downtown public WiFi hotspot.

“Its always a selling point to have town-wide WiFi or a downtown to have WiFi available,” he said.

Davis said he also has spoken with the Greater Franklin Development Corp. about how it’s an economic impediment to not have high-speed Internet available to residents wanting to work from home.

In Benton’s $1.5 million proposal, town officials proposed a mix of fiber-optic lines connected to homes and strategically placed WiFi hotspots. Selectman Antoine Morin said a lack of Internet access leaves residents disconnected and cuts off some students from using school laptops at home.

The letters expressing interest will be used to gauge interest and create a budget for the program, before coming back to the towns and organizations with the rules on the application process for the grant money, according to Jortner.

“Everyone has a lot of questions and not a lot of clarity of how much will all come to Maine,” Jortner said.

All but one Maine applicant specifically mentioned connecting directly to buildings with fiber-optic lines, which allow for high-speed Internet through higher bandwidth. Other proposals mentioned creating public WiFi spots around downtown or on walking trails.

Jortner said if towns are granted the funds, they would have the option of running the utility service themselves or contracting with a third party company once the infrastructure is in place.

Phil Lindley, executive director of ConnectME, which promotes growth of broadband access, said the state has its basics covered, with 93 percent of households having access to a basic broadband connection and the state’s schools and libraries being connected through Networkmaine.

However, he said widespread, high-bandwidth access is still limited across the state.

Lindley said while “there is really nothing future-proof,” fiber-optics carry a large bandwidth with high-speed Internet and give security that the infrastructure will hold as the demand for faster Internet grows.

“Right now there is very little fiber-to-the-home infrastructure, though there are a number of pockets of fiber to the home,” he said.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252

kschroeder@centralmaine.com