A view of Pioneer Broadband's main office in Houlton, Maine. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — More homes in rural Aroostook County will soon have access to fast, reliable internet, thanks to federal money awarded to Houlton’s Pioneer Broadband company to expand its services in northern Maine.

The $5.5 million award comes from the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

The lack of high-speed internet in rural areas like Aroostook County has been an issue brought to the forefront with the onset of the pandemic, when many schools had to conduct learning remotely and both teachers and students struggled with having reliable connections. Both of Maine’s senators — U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine — have voiced support for providing better internet access to rural areas.

“An affordable, high-speed internet connection is absolutely vital to success in the 21st century,” said King, who is a co-chairperson of the U.S. Senate’s broadband caucus. “With this important investment from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, Pioneer Broadband will now be able to provide much-needed connectivity to 1,600 rural Maine households.”

Tim McAfee, the CEO of Pioneer Broadband, said the process of delivering broadband to these homes will take around three years to complete.

The homes affected are in the most rural area along census tracts that include the towns of Ashland, Bridgewater, Monticello, New Limerick, Linneus and Amity.

The federal money means that homes included in this plan will have fast internet at one gigabit per second for $59.95 a month, the same price as Pioneer’s normal broadband services.

“We’re looking forward to getting started,” McAfee said. “It’s been a year-and-a-half process waiting for [the government] to come through with what they said they were going to come through with, and we’re starting now with applications and permitting.”

Already providing virtually all of the internet services to homes in Houlton and many in neighboring Hodgdon, Pioneer Broadband is looking to expand further in Aroostook County.

McAfee said the $5.5 million from the FCC will go solely toward the expansion, and not to upgrade its existing infrastructure.