Monhegan Island Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

MONHEGAN, Maine — Stepping off of a ferry onto Monhegan island is like stepping back in time. No paved roads. No cell phone service. A one-room schoolhouse sits in the island’s center.

The island is idyllic in its simplicity and its beauty. But islanders know certain things threaten the sustainability of their island community ― chief among them, access to fast and reliable internet. It’s especially a necessity during the pandemic as more Maine workers and students rely on the internet to stay connected.

Maine ranks 43rd in the U.S. for residents who have access to high-speed internet, according to Broadband Now, a national advocacy group that pushes for better connectivity. Sharp digital divides exist in the state between residents who live in urban areas and those in more remote parts — especially Maine’s islands.

While Monhegan has some internet availability through DSL and a wireless option, the existing services are far from perfect and can make simple tasks like running a credit card payment or uploading digital files an ordeal.

But thanks to a volunteer-led effort and a substantial grant from the federal government, Monhegan island could be breaking ground on a broadband internet system by next summer. The new service would allow for high-speed, reliable internet to be fed directly into homes and businesses on the island.

Maine Broadband Map

“There are so many difficult things about living on an island. Broadband has come to the forefront as something that could improve the quality of life here by a lot,” said Jaye Morency, owner of the Island Inn and co-chair of the volunteer committee tasked with exploring broadband.

At less than 2 miles long and 1 mile wide, Monhegan is Maine’s smallest inhabited island. Between 45 to 60 people call the island home year-round, though the population swells into the hundreds during summer months.

The island ― located 12 miles from the mainland ― is reachable only by boat, including passenger ferries out of Port Clyde and Boothbay. However, during winter months, only one ferry travels to the island three days a week for the primary purpose of delivering mail.

Increased connectedness with mainland-based services is one of the top reasons Maine’s island communities are looking to invest in a broadband internet infrastructure, according to Kendra Jo Grindle, a senior community development officer at the Island Institute.

Of Maine’s 15 unbridged island communities, Grindle said at least six have either already established a broadband infrastructure or have projects in the works.

“For some of [the islands] it was a necessity. For others it was just really understanding that internet access in today’s world is critical for the sustainability of a community, economy, education system and healthcare system,” Grindle said. “Just because you choose to live somewhere, doesn’t mean you should have to go without something that is no longer just a pleasurable thing to have. [Internet] really is a lifeline.”

Monhegan began exploring the possibility of broadband internet two years ago when a committee was formed to conduct an assessment of community needs in conjunction with the Maine Aqua Ventus project.

After conducting a survey, reliable internet was one of the chief concerns residents had when it came to how quality of life could be improved on the island.

“I think it was kind of a surprise how frustrated everyone was with their internet,” Morency said.

While DSL has been available on the island since about 2004, in recent years the service has slowed down substantially, according to island resident Tara Hire, who co-chairs the broadband committee with Morency.

Redzone Wireless offers a wireless internet service on the island, but it often goes down, Hire said.

Without reliable internet, computer tasks that might take seconds or minutes on the mainland instead can take hours. Hire, who is currently enrolled in an online computer systems course, said getting her schoolwork done often takes far longer than it should do to frequent buffering.

The unreliable internet isn’t just a pain for residents, but for summer visitors as well who want to stay in touch with their life on the mainland while vacationing.

“Things like that are just so irritating,” Hire said. “I think all of us have just gotten used to pausing and waiting.”

The committee first reached out to the island’s existing internet providers to see if the services could be brought to higher speeds. However, neither company said that was a possibility. With the help of the Island Institute, the committee then began exploring the possibility of establishing broadband on the island.

After sending out requests for proposals, the committee accepted a proposal from the company Axiom, which proposed microwaving broadband from a tower in Rockland to a tower on the island. From that island-based tower, fiber-optic cables will then be laid on the ground, individually connecting residences and businesses to the broadband network.

In 2019, the island applied for and received a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture for the $800,000 project. Monhegan will be responsible for matching 25 percent of the total cost, which they are hoping to cover through state grants and potentially a loan.

Currently, the island is waiting on the USDA to release the funding so an engineer can be hired to start planning the rollout, which will likely take place in the spring. The hope is that the work could be completed as early as summer 2021, according to Morency.

With broadband internet now within sight, Morency and Hire said the island will benefit in a multitude of ways, from potentially increasing population to new opportunities for telehealth and education.

“This will be a real game changer,” Hire said.