ELLSWORTH — Hancock County officials answered questions from municipal leaders and gave an overview Monday of the potential funding for broadband from the county’s share of $10.6 million from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. That funding is intended to assuage the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the area.
The Hancock County Commissioners hired two consultants to help. One of them, Kitty Barbee of Barbee Business Services, is helping the county organize and sift through what projects are allowed under the funding rules.
Mission Broadband Vice President John Dougherty has been hired to coordinate the broadband investment.
Dougherty explained to the 40-plus select board and municipal broadband committee members at the meeting that data collection would be the first step and is anticipated to take two to three months.
“We’ll also work with a mapping effort,” Dougherty said. The mapping should show where there are gaps in broadband service.
Dougherty said he wants answers to three questions: is broadband available, if it is available, does it meet the needs of the demographics and is the service affordable.
“Those are the three challenges we see with broadband,” Dougherty said. “What does that mean for each of the different areas? Every town is unique and has its own challenges. Every town has its own gaps. Those are the conversations we want to have with you.”
One person asked how much the county was planning to allocate to the broadband effort.
County Administrator Scott Adkins said the commissioners have discussed using half of the funds or $5.3 million.
“What’s the timing for funding?” asked Tom Ploch, who is chairman of the Swan’s Island Broadband Committee. “We’ve gotten proposals on the table and the town voted in July to bring fiber to the home. Our situation is we have everything authorized and ready to move forward.”
Adkins said the process would be to discuss with Dougherty and Barbee what the town has done and where it is in the process “to make the best case possible to the commissioners.”
“I don’t mean to be vague, but it is at this point,” Adkins said. “The commissioners do not want to bog down any town that’s ready to go.”
Joel Katz of Penobscot, who has been working on broadband efforts for several years, asked if Dougherty would be checking with internet providers about their expansion plans.
“Will there be any communication with them to dovetail with our needs?” Katz asked.
Dougherty said there would.
“We’re not all starting in the same place,” said Bucksport Town Manager Susan Lessard. “We want to participate. We want to be good county neighbors. That’s the challenge piece for me. To figure out what to ask or how it’s going to work. Bucksport has already gotten some ConnectMe grants.”
Adkins suggested Lessard call him.
Richard Tenney of Surry lives on Toddy Pond and brought up the issue of accounting for seasonal residences whose owners may not be around for meetings or surveys but need internet access.
“Several of them can’t even get any internet because they’ve run out of facilities,” Tenney said. “A lot of these people are high-tech. They’re dealing with cell phone hotspots. It’s the best they can do. If your survey is no better than what the FCC does, we’re in trouble.”
Dougherty replied, “That’s why we want to work with individual towns. Can we reach the seasonal? There’s certainly an economic development to all of that.”
Adkins suggested Tenney let his neighbors know what’s going on.
There will be future meetings. Adkins estimated about 15 municipalities were represented at the Oct. 25 meeting.