FAYETTE — With access to reliable high-speed internet critical now more than ever, a collective consisting of six central Maine towns is working to expand access in underserved areas.
Group members say towns without a stable connection are not only less likely to see new residents move in, but they’re losing people whose work depends on the service.
Joe Young saw firsthand how important reliable internet was while serving as a Fayette selectman in 2019, and it was this experience that led to the formation of the Western Kennebec Lakes Community Broadband Association.
“We had several individuals approach the (Fayette Board of Selectmen) and say that we really have to do something about getting internet in town,” said Young. “There were no wired connections for them to connect to. The roads they lived on didn’t have any cable TV service at all, and the telephone company didn’t provide any internet service to their road.”
People on these roads could only hope to access the internet with their cellphones, or via satellite.
Inspired to help, Young said he and others in Fayette began working on solutions while officials in Mount Vernon were also looking into the issue. From there, the local broadband association was formed in the spring of 2019. The association consists of two representatives from six towns: Fayette, Leeds, Mount Vernon, Readfield, Vienna and Wayne. All of them are working toward the goal of giving more residents access to reliable internet.
But Young said the association has a long road ahead of them. About three weeks ago, they contracted with the Preti Flaherty law firm to draft an inter-local agreement among the six towns. Young said this is the first step toward becoming a nonprofit entity.
If all towns vote to work together under the inter-local agreement and the organization does become a nonprofit, Young said it would strengthen their position to obtain grants and build a network.
“It’s my understanding that regional networks are looked at more favorably than if each individual town tried to build their own network,” he said. “It would also be a benefit in terms of the ongoing maintenance and operations. A larger network would have a better chance of surviving than a small, independent one town network.”
Young said the association found that, throughout the six towns, there are 160 miles of roads without access to reliable internet and as many as 2,000 people without a reliable internet connection. In Fayette alone, he said there are 900 people without a connection.
Ultimately, he said their goal is to establish a fiber network in the six towns.
“If we’re successful in getting the towns to support it, that’s the route we would go,” he said. “It depends on getting the towns to step up and commit to at least a part of those costs, and they’re pretty substantial. So, obviously some people are going to question whether we need it.”
Readfield Town Manager Eric Dyer said more than 75% of voters during their Town Meeting in June showed interest in bringing fiber to Readfield, a number he said was telling, as about 90% of the town’s residents already have internet access.
“There’s a lot of overlap between residents that have service and residents that want better service,” Dyer said in the release. “We’re working to make that happen as cost effectively as possible.”
Preliminary financial estimates show that, by the fifth year, revenue generated could not only fund the maintenance and upkeep, but also take care of the startup costs.
Young said the total cost of building a home network that reaches all potential subscribers is estimated to be $20 million and would serve 5,727 customers, of which a little over 2,200 are unserved.
He said their financial pro forma was developed using conservative estimates, with a subscriber fee set to $62 a month.
First-year operating costs are estimated to be $1,384,300, and by the fifth year it would increase to $2,119,625. First-year revenues are estimated at $818,332, and anticipated to increase each year until they hit $2,408,474 by the fifth year.
“It is conceivable that the network could eventually turn a profit and pay back some of the debt service costs to the towns,” Young said.
According to the association’s current timeline, and assuming all goes well, the network likely wouldn’t be built for another two or three years.
“First of all, we’ve got to get all the towns to actually step up and say they want to do this,” he said. “We’re hoping to have warrant articles prepared for each of the communities to vote on, as far as joining the interlocal agreement and participating in developing a network, during the next town meeting season beginning in March and June next year.”
While the move is not without its risks, failing to act could also hurt the six communities, leading to people leaving the communities and reduced property values.
“I’ve had people call and tell me that if Fayette doesn’t do something about the internet, they’re going to have to move, or they’ll lose their job, because their job requires reliable internet,” Young said. “There are all kinds of people who need much more than the service we have.”