After years of buffering, Georgetown on the verge of high-speed internet

Workers put up some of Georgetown Broadband’s first fiber cable. Current work is limited to only about 1/3 of the island but may reach all of Georgetown by sometime this fall, according to company leadership. Contributed / Terry Taylor

When COVID-19 forced millions of Americans into their homes in 2020, many city dwellers smoothly transitioned to a life of remote working and schooling.

For the 80,000 Maine households with inadequate internet access, the shift wasn’t so easy.

On March 24, a group of Georgetown residents inched toward their long-sought goal of bringing high-speed internet, or broadband, to their community, when contractors began installing fiber-optic cables on the island’s north end.

“We’re very, very, very excited,” said Carlos Barrionuevo, one of three managing members of Georgetown Broadband. “It’s been a long road to get here.”

Georgetown Broadband, a company founded in December 2020 by 10 Georgetown investors, hopes to begin providing affordable broadband to some residents by this summer, said Barrionuevo, who has worked to bring broadband to the town since 2015. Over 400 of a possible 1,035 households have already signed up for the service, which the company hopes will spread across the entire island by sometime this fall.

The project’s timeline will depend on the completion of the “make-ready” process, which requires Central Maine Power and Consolidated Communications to prepare existing telephone polls for fiber optic cable installation, according to Barrionuevo.

The group’s founders have invested $2.5 million into the project, which they believe will improve Georgetown’s educational, economic and health outcomes.

“These days, everybody needs broadband,” said Terry Taylor, another of the company’s managing members. “One way or another, it’s very intrinsic in our daily lives.”

Taylor, like others on the island, gets internet access through “digital subscriber line,” which uses copper wire. Georgetown residents living near the center of town can access download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second, which is the minimum standard for broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Even that standard, which experts say is no longer adequate, is far out of reach for Taylor and many others on the island, he said.

At Taylor’s home, which has access to download speeds of just 7 megabits per second or less, news articles take 20 or 30 seconds to load, and streaming video is often impossible, he said. A simple computer update could become a marathon process.

“My computer will tell me I have 1 1/2 days (before my update is complete),” Taylor said. “I end up taking my computer to another location that has better service so I can do it in 20 minutes like the rest of the world.”

Fiber-optic cable, made of glass tubes the width of a human hair, can transmit information at much higher speeds, said Andrew Butcher, president of the newly formed Maine Connectivity Authority.

Georgetown Broadband will offer download and upload speeds of up to 100 megabits per second for individuals, or 200 megabits per second for businesses, according to its website.

Other Midcoast communities, including Arrowsic, Harpswell and West Bath, have created task forces focused on improving broadband access.

Butcher, whose organization is preparing to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars to support broadband infrastructure in Maine, said improving speeds and access could improve the lives of professionals who use on videoconferencing technology, elderly citizens who depend on telehealth visits and children who attend school remotely.

“We need to be building infrastructure for where our needs are now and where our needs will be tomorrow,” he said. “We can’t afford to have people in the dark.”

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