Even in Maine’s most populous city, broadband internet access can be a challenge

The pace is quickening in Maine’s efforts to quicken internet access, and they include new steps to expand broadband service in perhaps an unlikely place: Portland.

Accessing a high-speed broadband connection has long been a challenge for Mainers in many parts of the state, and the pandemic has only aggravated the problem.

But while much of the digital divide stretches across rural Maine, five islands in Casco Bay — within Portland city limits — face ’net challenges of their own. The city is now looking at how to remedy them, and on Monday began reviewing results of research sizing up the needs.

The Portland Island Broadband Planning Committee, formed by the city earlier this year, fielded a survey in July to 1,300 residential property owners on Cliff, Cushing, Great Diamond, Little Diamond and Peaks islands. Roughly 500 responses were received from throughout the island communities, and the committee was scheduled to begin reviewing results on Monday.

Portland encompasses 17 islands, some of which are uninhabited or privately owned. The five surveyed islands are home to year-round residents and usually thousands of seasonal ones, as well as scatterings of small businesses. Peaks Island, just 3 miles from downtown, is the most populous island in Casco Bay, with almost 1,000 permanent residents.

The poll results show island residents differ widely in their satisfaction with internet access and the speeds of uploads and downloads.

On Peaks, where 274 residents responded, more than half reported high-speed access, defined as downloads of at least 25 megabytes per second and uploads of 10 mbps. On Great Diamond, where there were 71 respondents, only a few had high-speed access.

While the number of residents in the poll represent only a small fraction of Portland’s population of 66,000, the results don’t represent the vast numbers of summertime visitors to the islands who rent or stay but don’t own property there. In a typical summer, for example, Peaks Island sees its population swell to as much as 4,000.

The Broadband Planning Committee, which includes representatives from each island as well as city staff, has also been conducting meetings with residents and local internet service providers. According to its website, the group plans to continue its research and to ultimately develop recommendations for the city based on those findings.

In related news, Gov. Janet Mills last week nominated a president, Andrew Butcher, for the Maine Connectivity Authority, a new public entity created to help make high-speed internet service available throughout the state.

On Friday the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the award of $730,510 in three grants to improve education and health care via broadband service in rural parts of Maine. The recipients were the University of Maine System, Unity College, and Medical Care Development Inc., a nonprofit working to improve telehealth access for residents of Aroostook and Washington counties.

The funding comes a month after Maine was designated to receive $128 million in federal funds to expand broadband access for households and businesses.

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