FARMINGTON — Gaps in radio signals, a lack of broadband service, and spotty cellphone reception are problems that county officials hope to address with tax money from the Kibby Mountain wind turbine project.
The money comes from a tax increment financing project Franklin County formed for the 22-turbine TransCanada wind project that was built five years ago in the northern part of the county.
A group of county officials gathered Wednesday morning at a public hearing on what kind of infrastructure improvements they would like to see built with the money. The Franklin County commissioners are weighing whether to seek state approval to change the language of the TIF district to allow use of the money for such projects, and the public hearing is part of the information gathering process required before an eventual vote later this year.
Members of the business and public safety community told a county consultant that the rural community is being economically held back and is less safe because of the lack of adequate communications infrastructure.
David Maxwell, program director of the ConnectME Authority, which works to expand state broadband access, said Franklin County is not alone in wanting to increase the number of homes and businesses connected to high speed Internet. He noted that more than 20 bills have been introduced in the Legislature concerning broadband access.
“We are seeing an unprecedented interest in broadband in general,” said Maxwell.
Those in attendance acknowledged that it will take time to study the feasibility of any projects, win necessary regulatory approval and get the projects built, but said pushing for the projects backed by government money would be faster than waiting for the private sector to invest.
John Cleveland, a Community Dynamics consultant for Franklin County, said the TIF money could be used to leverage private sector funds or to obtain government grants and stretch the amount of cash they have to invest.
Cleveland said the low population density doesn’t provide enough financial return to prompt businesses to develop broadband and radio towers. In rural areas, he said, sometimes government money is the fastest avenue to get the services put in place.
Zach Wozich, optimization engineer with U.S. Cellular, said the company can’t always build the infrastructure some residents want because there isn’t always enough of a customer base in rural areas to justify the project.
However, he said if the county were to approach the cellphone carrier about going in together on a project, then “perhaps U.S. Cellular can talk about that.”
Representatives from the public safety community brought up the poor radio reception that has plagued Franklin County fire and police departments.
Lt. David Rackliffe of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department said law enforcement can’t get radio communications through in the Industry, Carthage and Weld area as well as in the corridor from Phillips to Rangeley. The service disruptions create safety problems.
Stan Wheeler, director of the Franklin County Regional Communications Center, which dispatches public safety calls, said the mountains block the signals of the county’s two radio towers at Mosher Hill and Sugarloaf.
“We’re hamstrung by the terrain,” said Wheeler.
Alison Hagerstrom, executive director of the Greater Franklin Development Corporation, said a lack of broadband and cellphone reception is hampering tourism and business in the region. She cited a business in Kingfield where employees stand on the porch to get cellphone reception.
Julie Magoon, county clerk, said she recently spoke to two vacationers from Massachusetts who were cutting their time short at Sugarloaf ski area because they were unhappy with the lack of cellphone and internet connections in the area.
Ralph Johnson, of ConnectME Authority, said the state in the past two weeks raised its standards for what counts as access to broadband and said now more than 85 percent of the state qualifies to apply for matching funding to expand broadband access.
Cleveland said before the Franklin County commissioners can vote on any changes to what TIF money can be spent on, they would need to hold more public meetings and gather more input. They also would need to talk about changes with Department of Economic and Community Development, which would need to approve any changes voted in by the commissioners. Cleveland said a vote by the commissioners could be held possibly in June.
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252