If any of the 750 people living in the Somerset County town of Mercer want to roam the internet then their only option is to travel to the Mercer Shaw Library, which is the only place in town with high-speed broadband access.

Selectwoman Mary Burr wants to change that.

Burr, who sits on the town’s broadband committee, said expanding online access is crucial.

“The way we see it, it’s just like bringing electricity to rural America,” she said. “It’s just like something like medical services; it’s got to be available.”

Mercer, along with other towns in Somerset County, is collaborating with the Somerset Economic Development Corp. in an effort to bring broadband access to everyone in the county. Such a push would involve connecting about 30,000 properties.

Up to $400 million in state and federal funding is expected to flow through the ConnectMaine Authority and the Maine Connectivity Authority over the next few years, according to Christian Savage, executive director of the Skowhegan-based Somerset Economic Development Corp. He said Somerset County and towns are able to divert federal pandemic relief money toward the effort, with voter approval.


The main roadblock to broadband expansion, especially in rural areas, has always been funding, he said.

“We’re trying to go big on this and make a huge impact,” Savage said. “I think the time is now to do this work, to see it through, to see it completed.”

He pointed to the necessity of broadband for people working or attending school from home. He also noted economic benefits that widespread broadband access can bring to communities, like attracting new homeowners and workers.

The countywide initiative in Somerset started in 2015 and culminated in a feasibility study released in July that maps out where fiber optic cables need to be run and where internet coverage already exists and the approximate speeds. The study estimates a cost of about $80 million to cover the county with fiber optic infrastructure, which many consider a “future proof” internet technology.

Savage expects the project will be covered by a combination of local, state and federal monies, with the potential for investment from telecom companies.

Work has started in the far north of the county, with crews from Premium Choice Broadband running fiber to over 1,200 properties between Jackman, Rockwood and Greenville.


“These are communities that were always off-the-map, no one was really interested in them,” Savage said. “And now they’re getting connected as we speak and their speed is 100 times faster.”

In spring 2019, the economic development group helped Bangor-based Premium Choice get a $200,000 ConnectMaine infrastructure grant to help expand the network in Cambridge, with the town, county and Premium Choice putting in another $450,000.

Now the initiative plans to move forward with fiber buildout in the rest of Somerset County. Savage stressed that rural broadband has traditionally been the most difficult to expand because with homes spread so far apart it’s not profitable for telecom companies to install the fiber optic infrastructure. And that’s why there’s a need for a countywide partnership to build on “economies of scale” to lower the total price tag, he said.

“The more subscribers you can attract in a buildout, the more it makes sense for a provider to come in,” Savage said.

The Somerset Economic Development Corp. has received a handful of proposals for plans to expand broadband, particularly in rural and less densely populated areas, Savage said.

Two of the proposals involve a public-private partnership with telecom companies to run fiber, and a third involves the creation of a regional public utility district that contracts to install fiber but thereafter owns the infrastructure, like the Downeast Broadband Utility. But new proposals are still coming in and the nonprofit will choose one or a combination of options.


The telecom companies, for now, cannot be named because of a nondisclosure agreement, Savage said.

The utility-district option costs more upfront but could potentially give greater financial returns and lead to lower monthly internet rates for subscribers in the future, Savage said.

“We’re doing our due diligence to explore each proposal we received and to select what method we want to go with, and then start applying for state and federal grants, as well as local funding, to see this happen,” he said.

A decision is expected to be made within the next few weeks, Savage said. Within a year, he expects thousands of properties to be connected and the entire county to be covered within three years.

Savage’s organization is also partnering with towns like Bingham, Embden, New Portland, Norridgewock, Smithfield and Starks to get the word out to residents and “paint a more clear picture of what could be,” Savage said.

Wisconsin-based TDS Telecom announced Thursday that it plans to run fiber optic cable to more than 21,000 properties in over two-dozen communities in Somerset and Franklin counties.

Savage said the TDS announcement was in response to some of Somerset Economic Development Corp.’s work. Another telecom company is expected to announce a separate independent fiber expansion, he said.

Savage’s team was “pleasantly surprised” by the news and is ready to work with telecom companies in advancing the goal of fiber-to-the-home for all Somerset County residents.

“Our hope and goal is to have these providers who are experts in this industry ideally take the lead or partner with us, and we’re starting to see that,” he said.

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