SKOWHEGAN — High speed Internet service — broadband — is important for residents and the wider business community of Somerset County who want to connect to the rest of the world while keeping the quality of life in rural Maine intact.

That much was understood Thursday night as area officials talked about achieving broadband success and about how applying for a grant might help. The task at hand, participants agreed, was how and when to bring broadband service to all areas in the region in a cost-effective way.

Jeff Hewett, Skowhegan’s director of economic and community development, said the meeting was a precursor to a regional planning grant to look at 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.

Lisa Leahy, of ConnectME, was on hand to announce another round of planning grants.

The term “broadband” commonly refers to high-speed Internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access. Broadband includes several high-speed transmission technologies such as digital subscriber line, DSL; cable modem; fiber; wireless; and satellite and broadband over power lines, or BLP, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

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, were invited to the meeting Thursday at the Skowhegan Community Center on Poulin Drive to discuss broadband capacity in the region.

Heather Johnson, executive director of the Somerset Economic Development Corp., said she is working with Hewett on the Skowhegan-based group, which is one of four “micro-regions” studying the broadband issue in Somerset County.

“The county as a whole is almost too big to tackle,” Johnson said before Thursday’s meeting. “We’ll create these micro-regions that all have similar needs and similar providers.”

The regions would be southern Somerset County, which was represented Thursday night, along with an eastern region covering the Pittsfield and St. Albans area and two northern regions, one from Madison and Solon to The Forks and another to include Jackman and Rockwood Strip in the far north.

Johnson stressed that broadband service is data-driven and does not include telephone service. She said broadband service was set up initially with more capacity to download data than to upload.

“More people are consumers of content than they are creators of content,” she said.

Residents of Solon, Starks and Canaan said they were unhappy with existing service, one Solon resident noting that his service was about one-tenth of the service capacity that people in India enjoy.

George Allen, of the Madison-based Bee Line Cable-TV, told the group that all of the competing companies in central Maine were doing a good job trying to keep up with all the growth in Internet services, but it has been a struggle.

Frank Scott, of Fairpoint Communications, who spoke for much of the meeting about his company, noted that the FCC has determined that Maine is the most rural state in the union with 61 percent of people living away from cities and towns.

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, Hewett said.

“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.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow


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