Grassroots group pursues better broadband service



ELLSWORTH — From entertainment to personal banking to work. So much is done online that high-speed internet has become an essential utility.

But in coastal, rural Maine, high-speed internet, as well as reliable cell phone service, can be spotty.

To that end, a group of residents and municipalities in the western half of Hancock County are working to bring broadband throughout the area.

Butler Smythe of East Blue Hill and Joel Katz of Penobscot are two of the organizers of Peninsula Utility for Broadband, with the tag line “We are the pub and we’re tired of being underserved.”

Participants include the Blue Hill Broadband Committee and the towns of Brooklin, Brooksville, Deer Isle, Stonington, Sedgwick and Penobscot.

Broadband “enables people to remain and work in Maine,” Smythe said. “In Blue Hill, we actually have parts of town that have zero internet.”

Smythe has internet service at his East Blue Hill Road residence, but the service is slow.

“When I update my computer, it takes three days, so I go to the library to do it,” Smythe said.

Smythe said there are a lot of people who can’t live year-round in Maine because there is no high-speed internet at their property or their employment requires a faster connection speed than what is available in their neighborhood.

Over time, the need for faster speeds is going to increase due to telemedicine and communicating with an ever-aging population, Smythe said.

But, rural Maine is often left in the lurch.

Smythe said the Peninsula Utility group idea came out of a discussion he had with Katz, leader of the Penobscot Broadband Committee. They talked during a Maine Broadband Coalition meeting in Waterville.

“We decided to start a committee that had a larger audience — in part to start communication among the towns on the peninsula,” Smythe said.

Some towns on the peninsula are in the process of forming broadband committees while other towns have committees that are independent of their towns.

“The goal is to have every committee have the endorsement of the selectmen,” Smythe said.

Why is “utility” included in the group’s name?

Smythe said the group will eventually register as a non-profit organization with 501(c)(3) status and as a utility.

Smythe said the group worked the word “utility” into the campaign’s name because utilities get a better rate when purchasing poles.

The Washington County municipalities of Baileyville and Calais have done something similar, partnering to form the Downeast Broadband Utility.

“They are putting fiber on poles that the town will own this summer,” Smythe said. “So we’re watching to see how they’re doing it.”

“One of the most expensive pieces of doing anything internet-related that’s wired is the poles,” he said. “You pay not only to get on them but you also pay an annual fee. Then you end up in some cases replacing the poles.”

Smythe said he got involved because he wanted to do something for the town but also to improve his chances of selling his home, should he ever decide to. Lack of high-speed internet is a deterrent for prospective home buyers.

As for the next steps, the group will continue to meet and communicate about how to bring better broadband to the area and inform residents.

“There are people interested in better broadband,” Smythe said. Internet via satellite is available from Hughes.net, but Smythe said satellite internet is expensive and has limits on the amount of data that can be used.

For more information, visit www.peninsulautility4broadband.org.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Maine Public Utilities Commission considered a portion of Blue Hill underserved because of slow internet speed. The Maine PUC has no regulatory authority over internet service.

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.