With the pandemic emphasizing the need for greater internet connectivity over the last year, a group of midcoast towns has come together in an attempt to create a municipally-owned broadband network in the Knox County region.

The group, the Midcoast Internet Coalition, is currently working to create the nonprofit entity that will oversee the establishment of the broadband network and is asking Knox County to consider allocating $7.7 million in federal funding the county is set to receive through the American Rescue Plan to the broadband project.

The type of utility that the coalition is seeking to establish would be a broadband network in which the fiber infrastructure is municipally-owned and developed. Private internet providers would then pay to operate on the network and customers would pay the internet providers for service.

By building a municipally-owned broadband network rather than relying on private internet companies to develop their own infrastructure, Midcoast Internet Coalition representatives said there will be greater local control over the scope and quality of the internet service provided through the network.

“We believe in open access. Typically, a municipality wants to provide universal access to all of its residents and homes instead of cherry picking the densest areas to serve, as private entities usually do,” said Debra Hall, Rockport Selectboard Chairwoman and Midcoast Internet Coalition President. “By owning the network we can control the quality and terms of engagement of what is delivered on the network.”

While parts of the Knox County area have some access to broadband internet, it is not widespread. Even in the towns of Hope, Appleton and the Waldo County town of Lincolnville, where a private internet company has built out a broadband network, access to the network can be cost prohibitive for some residents, according to Lincolnville selectmen and a town liaison to the coalition, Josh Gerritsen.

The open-access network being sought by the Midcoast Internet Coalition would allow multiple broadband providers to offer service. This would theoretically create competition and drive costs down, according to the coalition.

“That kind of competition is what we have all been waiting for in the internet world, that is what will keep the prices reasonable for the people who choose to take the service,” Denise Munger Rockport Selectboard Vice Chair and coalition representative, said.

Municipally-owned broadband projects are beginning to take root in Maine, as rural communities try to remedy slow ― and in some cases non-existent ― internet service. Fiber-optic broadband provides higher internet access speeds than traditional cable or DSL internet services.

Islesboro recently spent $3.8 million creating a municipally-owned broadband network, a model which Searsport is hoping to duplicate.

With the pandemic magnifying the need for better internet service, the interest in municipal broadband projects has skyrocketed, according to Kendra Jo Grindle, a senior community development officer focusing on broadband for the Island Institute. Grindle said now is an opportune time for communities to begin looking at broadband investments given the scope of federal and state funding that is becoming available for these projects.

While there can be issues with these types of projects if the municipality also tries to be its own service provider and compete with private internet companies, Grindle said that hasn’t been what towns are looking to do in Maine.

“Communities just want to own their infrastructure, they want to decide what is running down their roads and what their residents to have access to and then it’s on the [internet] provider to bring that service in,” Grindle said.

The Midcoast Internet Coalition is looking to create this type of municipally-owned model, but multiple communities will have ownership over the network instead of just one. The towns of Baileyville, Calais and Alexander have created a utility like this in the Down East region.

By having more than just one town sign onto the project, proponents say it becomes more financially and logistically feasible. The coalition will have access to a greater number of grant and loan opportunities as a collective entity.

The project will be a multi-million dollar endeavor, though Hall declined to give an exact cost estimate for the build-out of the network at this stage of the project given that there are still many moving parts.

However, no local taxpayer dollars will go toward the utility, according to the coalition. Instead the utility will be established using private investments, grant or loan funding. Once the utility is established, income will then be generated from the internet providers who pay to lease the use of the infrastructure.

Currently, the towns of Camden, Hope, Lincolnville, Northport, Rockland, Rockport, South Thomaston and Thomaston have joined the coalition.

“You can certainly achieve economies of scale by getting more towns involved,” Hall said.

Officials in Rockport and Camden have been in discussion since around 2019 regarding the possibility of a municipally-owned broadband utility. When the pandemic forced people to stay home, the reliance on the internet for remote work and schooling only emphasized the need for better connectivity and the effort grew to include more towns.

“The pandemic, everyone being on Zoom, all the remote work, it has all really demonstrated to people that [internet] is infrastructure, this is something that we need,” Rockland City Councilor and coalition representative Ben Dorr said. “A core partnership between Camden, Rockport, Rockland and Thomaston allows for the expansion of this network into the outlying towns. I think we need to create a critical mass of buy in.”

Better internet would make daily tasks like remote work and school easier for residents. But from an economic and community development standpoint, the opportunity for expanded high-speed internet access is also a boon, according to proponents.

Rockland City Councilor Nate Davis, who founded the coworking and maker space Steel House in Rockland, said people come to work at his space because it has broadband internet service. As a digital artist, composer and software developer, access to sufficient internet speeds without significant time delays are essential to his work.

“I think that if we have [more widespread broadband internet access] and we market ourselves as having it, it’s only going to increase the desirability of this area as a place to live and work and open businesses, there’s no question,” Davis said.

The next step in the coalition’s efforts is to establish the Midcoast Internet Development Corporation, the nonprofit organization that will begin forming the utility. Since Camden and Rockport initiated the concept, voters in the two towns will be asked in June to allow the towns to enter into an interlocal agreement to create the corporation.

If voters approve establishing the corporation, it will then begin the process of establishing a board of directors and raising funds for the broadband project. One of the first endeavors the corporation will take on is conducting a feasibility study, Hall said, which will determine costs and which towns will be included in phase one of the infrastructure build.

The coalition is also keeping a close eye on how Knox County commissioners choose to spend the $7.7 million from the federal American Rescue Plan that the county is set to receive sometime this month. The coalition has formally asked the county to allocate the entirety of the federal funding it receives to their project, arguing that the pandemic has only emphasized the need for investments in broadband infrastructure.

The county has not yet made a decision on how it will spend this money, as local officials await further guidance from the U.S. Department of the Treasury on how the funding should be allocated.

If the county does not allocate the funding to the Midcoast Internet Coalition as seed money for the project, representatives said they will then have to begin fundraising ― a process that could take a couple of years, Munger said.

While there are still many hurdles that stand in between the Midcoast Internet Coalition and the end goal of a regional broadband utility, those involved feel it’s an effort worth playing the long game for.

“Broadband is as important as electricity now. The pandemic has demonstrated that to all of us,” Gerritsen said. “This is a hard puzzle to solve, but to me there is nothing more important to my community than this. So I just feel morally compelled to do everything I can to try to make this happen because of how important this is.”