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Jun 6, 2024

'It's a necessity:' Small towns wait for broadband as Maine nears 2024 connection goal

SWEDEN (WGME) -- Two years after setting a goal of getting all Mainers who don't have access to broadband connected by the end of 2024, the state says it's closer than ever, though some small communities are still lagging behind.

"People think, 'Oh broadband internet, it's a convenience,'" Sweden Selectperson Kerry Welton said. "But really, it's a necessity."

Sweden, which has a population fewer than 400, is one of many small communities across Maine considered "unserved" by broadband as residents struggle to connect through outdated lines.

Despite promises of upgrades in recent years, the town says progress has been as a slow as their internet speeds.

"It's been about two years of trying to work to get people to come in to give us options and to give us broadband," Welton said. "There's a lot of frustration, and nobody really knows if it's actually coming or not."

It was two years ago that the CBS13 I-Team first highlighted how slow speeds were impacting the way of life in the small Lakes Region community.

"In 2022, I didn't think it would be an issue," Sweden resident Kathi Shorey said. "When I'm talking about better internet, it's 10 megabits. I have three. Three!"

Since then, Shorey says a broadband company has connected a few people on her street. However, they remain the only ones in town who have access to higher speeds.

"We thought we were there, we won the lottery here," Shorey said. "But things are getting held up, so it's a little disappointing."

During her State of the State address in 2022, Governor Janet Mills set the goal of connecting every Mainer who wants access to broadband with broadband by the end of this year.

"I pledge to you tonight that every person in Maine who wants to connect to high speed internet will be able to do so by 2024, just two short years from now," Mills said.

While there's been progress on that promise since, data from the state shows 4% of locations in Maine remain unserved while another 1% don't have access to an internet connection at all.

"We really want to prioritize getting those folks a connection now, understanding that there's an immediate need for it," Brian Allenby with the Maine Connectivity Authority said. "At the end of the day, it's our collective job to ensure that everyone across the state gets served."

The Maine Connectivity Authority (MCA) is a quasi-government agency tasked with meeting the Governor's goal by planning, developing and investing in broadband infrastructure across the state.

"We've invested about $140 million of state and federal funding to build out broadband projects. That's been combined with another $80 million in private and community investment," Allenby said. "More than 70,000 homes and businesses now have a funded connection in Maine."

But with about 28,000 locations still unserved by broadband and another 5,000 to 7,000 locations with no internet connection, can the governor's goal still be achieved by the end of this year?

"We're on track to meet that goal, to ensure that the 1 percent of locations that don't have any access to any sort of technology have access, they at least have an option for connectivity," Allenby said. "I think it's also really important to remember and to identify just because we're on track to accomplish that goal, that's not the end of the work. There's still so much more to come."

For unserved communities like Sweden, those next steps can't come soon enough.

"From my point of view, we wonder if it really panned out the way that they intended," Welton said. "The larger underserved towns seem to be a step ahead of us."

It's not for a lack of trying. Sweden joined Eastern Slopes Regional Broadband, a coalition of a number of towns in the MSAD 72 school district, to better its chances of bringing high-speed internet to the area.

The town is also currently in negotiations with Spectrum on a franchise agreement that should allow for the introduction of faster internet, but that's going to take time and the town would still like to see more options.

"As a small community, we want to be competitive with some of these others," Welton said.

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