BROOKLIN — The importance of a strong internet connection has been one of the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for those who need to work and attend classes remotely or have virtual health-care appointments. But, that utility is missing from parts of the Blue Hill Peninsula, particularly in Brooklin and Sedgwick.
To that end, the two towns voted last October to form the nonprofit Rural Broadband Access Corp. (RBAC) to design, finance, build and partner for the delivery of fiber-optic broadband services to all residents and businesses in the participating towns.
Last week, that project got a boost from the Hancock County Commissioners, who voted unanimously to give the towns $888,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for the broadband work.
Hancock County has received $5.3 million in federal funds meant to help with COVID-19 relief and associated projects and the funding would come from that. The county is supposed to receive another $5.3 million in June.
The funding is ostensibly going to improve the access corporation’s chances of receiving a ConnectMe grant from the state.
“We need your help to do the next step,” Brooklin Select Board Chairman Bill Cohen told the commissioners. “ConnectMaine is going to close on this round of grants, and we need to be able to state in that application whether or not the county will support us.”
Commissioner Paul Paradis remarked that the $888,000 funding appropriation represents 17 percent of the funds the county has allocated for broadband improvement.
“I’m not saying it’s a bad number, it’s just a number,” Paradis said.
“There’s going to be a number of Brooklin/Sedgwicks,” said Commissioner Bill Clark.
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” Paradis replied. “I’m not sure there are. That makes this easier.”
Commission Chairman John Wombacher said, “I think it’s the perfect project. It’s an impressive undertaking that you’ve done. I think the fact that we’re really going to hit so many underserved makes committing such a large dollar amount palatable.”
Paradis said his only worry was that the commissioners don’t cut similar projects out of contention with the size of the county’s contribution to Brooklin/Sedgwick.
“Somebody’s got to be first, right?” Paradis said. “It’s not going to be perfect. The only way we’re going to learn is by doing something like this.”
Last week, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced about $28 million to expand broadband in Maine. The money will be used to fund the ConnectMaine Authority’s Statewide Broadband Infrastructure Project.
How does that fit with the Brooklin/Sedgwick project?
“Up until the actual announcement there had been some doubt that the project would not be funded,” Cohen said.
“The RBAC board wanted to understand and explore what is possible in bringing Brooklin and Sedgwick high-speed broadband. At this time, we are seeking to understand the details/limitations of the NTIA award and because of a very tight deadline we are working to submit for a ConnectME grant.
“As we told the Hancock County Commissioners, we will pursue both until we have enough information to make a decision on which way to proceed. The gracious award by the commissioners will allow us to complete the ConnectME grant request and we will not spend any county money until we clearly know which way to proceed. Our goal is to have 100 percent coverage in both towns.”