FARMINGTON — Franklin County students, real estate brokers, doctors, insurance agents and grandparents don’t want to be left behind the rest of the state when they connect to the Internet.

On Wednesday night, nearly 100 people, many driving from Stratton, Rangeley and rural townships, wanted to know when they might expect their internet connections to compete with those in Portland, Bangor or Augusta, and when the price would be affordable for entire communities.

The public meeting at Franklin Memorial Hospital was a step forward in a grass-roots effort to educate area residents and businesses about the options available to them going forward.

Consultant Brian Lippold, of the J.W. Sewall Co., presented the audience with an analysis of the current services and areas they cover.

The goal, he explained, has been to develop a collaborative broadband access plan that entire municipalities, plantations and townships could afford. He noted that connecting to the internet has grown far beyond checking email; towns have lost businesses and their young people; they are searching for ways to attract new business, new home buyers and opportunities to work from home; and quality affordable internet access is part of Franklin County’s economic future. Stopping migration out of the area is a critical component of that future.

“The greatest benefit is to stop the out-migration and increase the in-migration,” he said.

Other regions have received grant money to do planning studies, but Franklin County’s study is unique, he said. Everyone has become part of the process. All 22 communities contributed a proportional share of the seed money to get the grant and the planning process started, he said.

“This the only plan study that has contributed to the match,” he said.

In his half-hour presentation, he suggested there’s competition for local internet business, but there has to be an economic value for the companies that deliver that service, as well.

“We don’t know what applications are coming down the road that will require more bandwidth,” he said.

Franklin Memorial Hospital is one of the 100 most-wired hospitals in the country, according to nurse-educator Tania Dawson and its quality broadband is treasured by employees who often live in distant western Maine communities.

“When you leave here, that’s gone,” she said.

When she was studying for her master’s degree, she often went at night after work the local library’s parking to send her assignments. She simply could not get a reliable signal from home, she said.

“It’s no longer a luxury,” she said. “It’s a necessity.”

In December 2017, Franklin County commissioners approved funding a countywide broadband initiative, with money coming from the Unorganized Territory budget to pay for the area’s share of the initial study to survey the options.

Commissioner Clyde Barker said he has become a believer in the importance of quality broadband to the local economy. Real estate agents have lost sales when potential buyers found they would have to forfeit quality internet access. Tourists who come to the area expect it when they go to places such as Rangeley and Sugarloaf. When people buy second homes, they just expect to have broadband access.

“It’s something that’s important to our economy,” he said.

Presenters included adult education directors from the Regoinal School Unit 9 and RSU 73 school districts. Students often have poor or no connections at home, so they stay after school to complete assignments. They also are denied the same opportunities as other students if they don’t have access to online classes. Many students in the adult education classes have full-time jobs and could stay home to complete their General Educational Development studies, according to RSU 9 director Glenn Kapiloff.

Charlie Woodworth, executive director of the Greater Franklin Development Council, said towns will get assistance with the implementation process as the final plan moves forward.

“It’s been a yearlong grass-roots effort to get here,” he said. “People want this.”

Woodworth said the entire 500-page study will be available by Friday on the Greater Franklin Development Council’s website. The Franklin County Broadband Initiative has been a combined effort of The Opportunity Center of North Franklin County, the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, the Greater Franklin Development Council, the Rangeley Economic Opportunity Committee and the Sandy River Business Association. For more information, contact [email protected]

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