Piscataquis County Commissioners listen as meeting attendees ask questions and provide feedback on a rebate program for internet services in underserved areas on Tuesday. Credit: Valerie Royzman / BDN

Piscataquis residents in rural areas who don’t have internet could soon be connected under a new county program.

A rebate would reimburse up to 50 percent of costs to purchase internet hardware, such as modems and routers, not exceeding $300, said James White, chair of the Piscataquis County Commissioners, who proposed the program at a meeting Tuesday.

Commissioners capped the program at $150,000 for the year, with plans to revisit it if many residents want to participate. They did not specify where the funding would originate. If funds are not spent by the end of 2022, the program will end on Jan. 1, 2023, White said.

After months of discussing spotty internet access in parts of Piscataquis County and how to resolve the issue, the commissioners came up with their own solution. This comes after the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council spearheaded a $60,000 broadband planning report that identified gaps throughout the county and how to fill them. The study estimated it would cost $22 million-$27 million to expand internet coverage to unserved areas. Commissioners have repeatedly said the study was misleading because it only offered a fiber option, was expensive and would take years to implement.

The study suggested more than 700 miles of fiber and offered no alternatives, White said, calling it appalling and disingenuous at the meeting Tuesday. He wished the study had presented other options, such as satellite or radio frequency internet services.

Those interested in the county program must be full-time residents to qualify, White said. They can’t live in a place like downtown Dover-Foxcroft, for example, where high-speed internet is already available, he said. Instead, the program is aimed at someone living in a place like Beaver Cove, which has one paved road.

Depending on the service, there are likely upfront costs that residents would have to handle on their own.

“The idea of my proposal is that it is relatively immediate,” he said. “It may be a month or two to wait for hardware to show up, or even six months. If someone lives 50 miles down the road and there’s only two houses, they don’t get excluded from this.

“They don’t have to wait years before the fiber gets run if their child is out of school because of something like what happened with the COVID situation.”

White clarified that the program is not meant to promote Starlink, which Commissioner Andrew Torbett mentioned in a recently contributed Piscataquis Observer piece as an option for residents living in underserved areas.

“What we’re not doing is spending $26 million so that [any internet]company can go out and glean millions of dollars from towns and then glean other federal grants so that they can run obsolete fiber-optic,” White said.

Sean Hadley, who lost out on a seat on the Dover-Foxcroft Select Board in November 2021 but is running again, said the program might help ease the worry of residents who are concerned about upfront costs for internet.

Tom Goulette, who serves on the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council’s executive committee, said the program currently excludes those who already have fiber near their house.

Chris Maas, a Dover-Foxcroft resident and PCEDC council member, said he and others are working with the ConnectMaine Authority on broadband efforts. He is worried about the 660 or so homes mentioned in the broadband planning study that are considered off the grid and  would not be served, he said.

Those involved in the effort sent letters to 30 towns, some outside of Piscataquis County, to meet on May 3 and discuss internet expansion. Maas encouraged the commissioners to attend and be part of the conversation.

“We’re pretty sure this [running fiber] can be done with zero cost to the towns, either in taxes or bonding,” he said. “There’s going to be lots of places where folks who are participating in this coalition can take a look and decide whether they want to continue or not.”

Residents interested in the rebate program should purchase their internet equipment and bring a receipt to the commissioners’ office for reimbursement, White said. The broadband planning study will be available on the Piscataquis County website for people to see if their residence falls into the unserved areas, he said.