Internet Coalition Evaluates Broadband Options

SEARSMONT – Bringing faster, more reliable internet to West Waldo County has been the mission of the Southwestern Waldo County Broadband Coalition for about a year. Broadband has improved in spurts, but speed, reliability and affordability continue to lag, according to the Maine Development Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that promotes economic growth in the state.

According to Searsmont Select Board member Pete Milinazzo, who also sits on SWCBC’s board of directors, the group has made exciting progress in its efforts to bring broadband to the five member cities of Freedom, Liberty, Montville, Palermo and Searsmont. . In an email exchange, Milinazzo gave an overview of the work the coalition has been doing since last fall.

Last September, the SWCBC conducted a community survey in which 630 residents of member cities participated, with some interesting points raised. Among them, 11% of those who responded to the survey said they did not have the Internet, mainly because there was no company providing the service or because it was too expensive.

Eighty-two percent of respondents said their ISP was Consolidated Communications, and 56% said they experienced connectivity issues at least once a day. Quality deteriorated for 76% of respondents when more than one person in the household used the Internet at a time.

About half of respondents said they use the Internet for educational purposes; of this group, 7% said that three or more people in the household used it for education; 17% had two people; and 25% had one. Eighty percent of those who used the Internet for educational purposes used it for video conferencing, while 67% of this group reported using it for email.

Forty-four percent of respondents said one person in the household used the internet for work, while 26% had two people working online and 4% had three or more. Of those who work remotely, 92% use the Internet for email, while 70% use it for video conferencing.

When asked the average monthly fee for internet only, 32% said it was between $40 and $60, 23% said it was between $60 and $75, 29% said they were between $75 and $100 and 9% paid between $100 and $150.

Another major step in the process of introducing broadband to the region is the completion of a feasibility study. Axiom Technologies has been hired as a consultant, and according to Milanazzo, the study should be completed by mid-March.

The coalition’s February newsletter said the cost of the study was $45,000, which will be paid for with American Rescue Plan Act funds at a cost of $9,000 per city. No municipal property tax funds will be used.

The five SWCBC cities have also received more than $600,000 in ARPA funds, although no money has yet been allocated for broadband expansion. Waldo County still has over $3,000,000 in unallocated ARPA funds, after distributing $100,000 of the $7,700,000 it received to the five SWCBC cities ($20,000 each), without any requirements from the county as to how the funds were to be used.

The four options currently being considered for bringing broadband to member cities include creating a not-for-profit regional fiber optic network public service, forming a public-private partnership, providing incentives for a belonging to an Internet service provider and the adoption of a fixed wireless broadband network.

According to SWCBC talking points that Milinazzo shared with The Republilcan Journal, community-owned utilities would have the most control over determining rates and services, but would also be the most expensive to fund. While cities would need to manage the running of the utility, an ISP would be hired for connectivity and maintenance. This option has the potential to provide a revenue stream for cities, with subscribers paying a fee. If the community-owned option is chosen, SWCBC will require community support and guidance to form an inter-local agreement.

A public-private partnership would be easier to fund than outright utility ownership and would share responsibilities with an ISP for connectivity and maintenance. The cities would need to participate in the operation and this option would have less community input in the establishment of future tariffs and services offered.

Offering incentives to an ISP to build a fiber network would represent a lower financial commitment for cities. The ISP would do all the work and cities would be tied to a single provider with little community control over future rates and services, according to the talking points.

Fixed wireless broadband would have the lowest potential cost and be implemented faster than other options, but would also be tied to a single provider. This option may be less reliable and slower than a fiber network. The Red Zone uses fixed wireless and, rather than new towers, it would erect repeaters on small poles to support broadband access.

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