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Feb 16, 2023

Award of $8.8M means Skowhegan, surrounding towns to see high-speed internet service by next year

The Maine Connectivity Authority has awarded the money to the towns through a partnership with Consolidated Communications.

SKOWHEGAN — The largest grant the Maine Connectivity Authority has awarded to this point — $8.8 million — was given earlier this year to Skowhegan to make fiber internet service available to all homes and businesses by early next year.

The town is now working with state officials and internet provider Consolidated Communications to bring high-speed broadband to Skowhegan, Canaan, Cornville and parts of Madison.

The authority awarded $34 million in January to fund projects in 31 communities across Maine.

“We’ve been talking about this for many years, since before I was town manager,” Skowhegan’s top administrator, Christine Almand, said Thursday of expanding broadband internet service.

Almand, town manager since 2014, said discussions about spotty internet coverage in Skowhegan and the surrounding area intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, when remote work, school and health care became parts of everyday life for many people.

“It also helps in economic development, being able to conduct business,” Almand said. “Broadband is important for so many reasons.”

Jeff Hewett, Skowhegan’s director of economic and community development, said half of the problem is reliable coverage. Cornville, in particular, has little broadband, he said. And although Consolidated, Bee Line Cable and Spectrum cover most of the area, Hewett said internet service is often unreliable, with slower speeds that can make online work frustrating.

Another aspect of limited internet access is cost. Hewett said Skowhegan officials regularly hear complaints of how people cannot afford the rates that would bring greater speeds.

“This should level the playing field a lot more,” Hewett said Thursday. “And it could be a tool for attraction. If we’re going to try and compete in this global economy, we’ve got to have this infrastructure.”

Skowhegan officials put $400,000 toward the overall investment, with Hewett saying the money came from town accounts and federal funding, and was not at additional expense to taxpayers.

“We were very excited about this grant and pretty confident in our ability to obtain it,” Sarah Davis, Consolidated’s senior director of government relations, said Thursday.

She said the grant is so large because it will be impacting so many users — about 15,000 people.

Consolidated previously told town officials its most popular service plan is 1 gigabyte of fiber internet at a rate of $70 a month, which goes up to $95 a month after a year. Its least expensive plan is 50 megabits per second at $35 a month for a year, which then increases to $65 a month.

The benefits of fiber internet, Davis said, are high upload and download speeds, meaning no lagging on video calls or streaming.

Hewett said there will be an opportunity for low-income residents to apply for free, higher-speed internet access through Consolidated.

Davis said fiber installation in the area is expected to begin in October.

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