$9M headed to rural Maine for high speed Internet

Posted Aug. 04, 2010, at 7:49 p.m.

Federal officials announced Wednesday that three local telecommunications companies — including two in central Maine — will receive more than $9 million in stimulus money to expand high-speed Internet access in rural areas of the state.

A total of 126 projects across the nation — totaling $1.2 billion — received funding in the second installment of stimulus money for the expansion of broadband service. The three projects in Maine slated to receive a share of the money are:

  • Hartland and St. Albans Telephone Co., which will receive $2 million.
  • West Penobscot Telephone and Telegraph Co., which serves customers in the Corinna and Stetson areas, $1.6 million.
  • Somerset Telephone Co., which serves western Maine customers from Strong to north of Flagstaff Lake, $5.8 million.

All three companies started out as local telephone service providers and were eventually acquired in the 1970s by TDS Telecommunications, a national firm with customers in more than 30 states. TDS’ parent company, Telephone and Data Systems Inc., is the majority owner of wireless provider U.S. Cellular.

TDS spokeswoman DeAnne Boegli said the federal funding will help “fill in the gap” for broadband expansion projects that likely would have been too costly for the company to pursue otherwise. TDS has pledged to provide $3.1 million in matching dollars to the projects.

Once considered a luxury, high-speed Internet is now regarded by many as an economic development tool critical to attracting new businesses to an area as well as maintaining existing businesses.

During a telephone press conference Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he expects the additional broadband installation projects will put about 5,000 people to work and encourage business development.

But Vilsack said high-speed access to the Web also helps support other “anchor institutions” such as schools and libraries, and can enhance public safety services in rural areas.

“These projects will create jobs building these networks, and the completed systems will provide a platform for rural economic growth for years to come,” Vilsack said in a statement.

St. Albans Town Manager Rhonda Stark said she probably hears several times a week from local residents frustrated with the lack of high-speed Internet in the area. Stark said the grant to Hartland and St. Albans Telephone will be especially welcomed by residents on rural roads where high-speed access is unavailable.

“This is very good news,” Stark said.

Boegli said the money in Maine will help expand high-speed Internet services to roughly 600 homes in the Hartland and St. Albans Telephone network, 440 homes served by West Penobscot Telephone and Telegraph, and more than 1,450 homes served by Somerset Telephone.

Maine officials praised the grants.

“Maine has the lowest rate in New England for households with Internet access, and the areas of northern, western and central Maine are particularly underserved,” Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins said in a joint statement. “Extending access to communities that are otherwise technologically isolated opens up a world of information, resources and services.”

This is the second wave of stimulus money to expand broadband services in rural or underserved areas.

Last December, U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke visited the University of Maine in Orono to announce that a public-private effort — known as the Three Ring Binder project — would receive $25.4 million in stimulus funds to install 1,100 miles of fiber-optic Internet cable in rural Maine.

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