SKOWHEGAN — Area officials say there’s a need for more broadband Internet access in Somerset County, so they’re meeting to talk about how applying for a grant might help.

Business leaders and town officials plan to meet at 6 p.m. Thursday to address broadband issues and an upcoming application for a grant, said Jeff Hewett, Skowhegan’s director of economic and community development.

Hewett said the meeting is a precursor to a regional planning grant to look at the existing Internet services and what it will take to increase current capacity. The grant would be administered through ConnectME Authority, a part of Maine state government whose mission is to get broadband to all Mainers.

Officials say 59 percent of Maine’s 141,000 small businesses don’t have a website, while 55 percent of businesses see no reason to have one. Residentially, 35,500 Mainers are still using slow dial-up online services.

Representatives from Skowhegan, Canaan, Cornville, Madison, Norridgewock and Starks, along with the Skowhegan Economic Development Corp., the Somerset Economic Development Corp. and the Kennebec Valley Council Of Governments, have been invited to meet Thursday at the Skowhegan Community Center on Poulin Drive to discuss broadband capacity in the region.

Large and small businesses, nonprofits, health organizations students and others have been invited to help determine the region’s existing capacity and what residents will need for Internet service in the future, Hewett said. The meeting is open to the public.

The Skowhegan-based group is one of three studying the broadband issue in Somerset County, Hewett said. Heather Johnson, executive director of the Somerset Economic Development Corp., is organizing the other two groups.

“This is a first step to figure out the existing capacity that we have,” Hewett said. “We’ve got businesses coming in. We’ve got towns folks coming. We’ve got municipal people coming. We’ve got nonprofits coming. We want to get some feedback on what they think the issues are.”

High-speed Internet is one of the cornerstones of economic, education and health development, Hewett said. Some areas in the region still have either no connection or extremely limited connections, he said. Many of the local Internet providers have been invited to participate in the discussion.

“This is a major impact on attracting people to the area. One of the first requirements most home-buyers are looking for is high-speed Internet, either for private use or for work,” he said.

A survey asking area residents what they have for Internet service was sent out in August. It was the first step in gathering data on what exists in Somerset County for broadband and information on what residents want to see for the future.

“As the number of elderly grow in the region, high-speed Internet for medical connections help the elderly remain in their homes longer at a far less cost than stays at nursing homes,” Hewett said. “This will be one of the ways we can help slow health care cost increases in the future.”

High-speed connections also are critical for students, many of whom don’t have access to the Internet at home, creating a roadblock that many cannot overcome, he said. Education is requiring home Internet connections for all levels of schooling from middle school to college courses, according to Hewett.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]


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