ELLSWORTH — Ninety-one percent of Ellsworth residents surveyed say they would support a community broadband project that would provide 100Mbps download speeds for about $50 a month.
That was perhaps the main takeaway from a survey conducted by the City Broadband Committee in partnership with the consulting firm Mission Broadband toward the end of last year. Committee members presented these findings, along with a summary of their work over the past year and some recommended next steps, as they briefed this current iteration of the City Council at a workshop on July 14.
The Broadband Committee was formed in March of 2021. It was made up of a mix of city staff, council members, business owners and residents. Its task was to determine both the accessibility and quality of the current broadband network and make recommendations as to whether Ellsworth should pursue some form of expansion.
The first step, in the fall of 2021 after receiving a ConnectMaine Planning grant, was to conduct this citywide survey. The survey ran through January of this year and the data collected was used as part of the creation of a strategic plan, which is available on the city’s website.
Out of around 4,900 surveys that were sent out, 574 responses were received from various locations throughout the city.
“A 12 percent response rate, with over 500 responses, is a very good response rate,” said Mission Broadband’s Mark Van Loan, who was presenting the survey results.
The survey also shed some light on the current state of connectivity in the city. Ninety-five percent of respondents stated that they have access to the internet, with 94 percent saying they are served by either Spectrum (64 percent) or Consolidated Communications (30 percent). Van Loan pointed out that a high percentage of respondents had some level of dissatisfaction with their current service. Forty-five percent said their service was too slow. Fifty-six percent said it was too expensive.
One of the biggest challenges for the committee, as is perhaps the case for most governments and organizations in the state, has been quantifying the number of residents who don’t have access to the internet. While attempts were made to reach those households that aren’t connected, this fact still caused some hesitation when extrapolating out the survey results and applying them to the city at large.
“People who don’t have the service are not responding to the survey,” said City Council Chairman Dale Hamilton. “So, assuming 95 percent of residents have internet access is probably false. We have to be careful making that assumption because there are people who we know don’t have service.”
The committee does hope to hear from that segment of the population as it prepares to present the final version of its strategic plan to the council in August. To help increase participation rates among the community, committee members have extended the public comment period on the plan until Aug. 8.
Once the plan is finalized and presented, the council must decide whether an expanded broadband network is something they are interested in pursuing. If the plan is approved there are several avenues available to the city, including but not limited to, building and maintaining infrastructure that is completely owned by the city or pursuing some sort of public/private partnership.
John Doherty, with Mission Broadband, told the council that several private companies have already approached the committee with interest in expansion, including Spectrum and Google Fiber, among others.
“Everybody is looking at this because it’s the same problem,” Doherty said. “Even though we have providers, they’re not adequate and it’s not working.”
The state is also making available grants aimed at expanding broadband access. The formation of the committee, drafting of the strategic plan and several other steps would all improve the city’s standing when it comes time to apply for these funds going forward.
The committee asks that all comments please be submitted no later than 5 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 8. Written comments can be submitted in-person at City Hall; mailed to 1 City Hall Plaza, Economic Development Office, Ellsworth, ME 04605; or emailed to [email protected].