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Jul 20, 2023

Wilton votes to accept MCA grant

With the acceptance of the MCA grant on Tuesday, July 18, the Select Board will be able to move forward with Matrix Design Group to bring high-speed internet to Wilton.

WILTON — After a long deliberation with representatives from Matrix Design Group, the Wilton selectboard voted to accept the grant offer from the Maine Connectivity Authority [MCA] on Tuesday, July 18.

Matthew Dunn, project manager from Matrix Design Group, along with account manager Lauren Cassle, appeared before the selectboard to answer questions and clear up any confusion regarding the MCA grant. The deadline to accept the offer from MCA is Monday, July 31.

The grant offer from MCA would allow Matrix Design Group, in partnership with Wilton, to build infrastructure and provide reliable, high-speed, and affordable broadband to the town. Furthermore, after a minimum of five years, the town will have the option to buyout the infrastructure from Matrix and assume control of it as a municipality service.

The offer first came to the selectboard in November of 2022 when the Selectpersons unanimously approved Town Manager Perry Ellsworth collaborating with Chris Lynch of Matrix Design Group in the application for the state grant.

Since then, a number of perimeters have changed for the grant. Lynch appeared before the selectboard in March to state that several changes, including the number of homes “unserved” and pay rates, would require the original agreement to be amended.

At this meeting, Lynch explained that MCA adjusted their perimeters of what they considered “unserved”. Originally, 530 homes in Wilton were considered unserved, meaning they only had access to DSL or satellite, but according to Lynch, MCA changed their definitions to include over 1,000 additional homes, tripling the number of homes that would have access to high-speed internet.

The other change was the fixed pay rate for consumers. Originally, a price point of $95 was considered for monthly cost, but MCA requested a lower price point of below $60, with an additional affordable tier.

“Now, that’d be a 50-megabit tier and it would cost $30,” Lynch stated. “But the FCC, through the ACP program, would be giving a $30 voucher. So that basically means free internet for the people who qualify for that program.”

With these changes, the original agreement from November was amended, but several other changes outside of the agreement have occurred during that time that has put the MCA grant and Matrix Design Group’s plan into question.

At their July 11 meeting, the selectboard received a visit from Brian Lippold of Casco Bay Advisors, LLC. Lippold advised against pursuing the MCA grant due to Consolidated Communications expanding from East Wilton to the rest of Wilton and Charter Communication buying out Beeline.

“The grant from the MCA requires the town to demonstrate that at least 50% of the potential subscriber locations have signed up for service,” Lippold said. Originally, Bee Line Cable was the only internet service provider in that region, leaving the potential for a 50% market share viable. Now, with two competing service providers, the question of whether or not Wilton can demonstrate at least a 50% market share has threatened the potential for the grant and the project as a whole.

At their meeting on Tuesday, Ellsworth, on behalf of the selectboard, asked Dunn if the grant and project were feasible if the 50% market share is not achieved.

“If the 50% rate isn’t achieved, then essentially, you have to go back to the board and the grant funds go away,” Dunn stated. “Is it feasible to build without the grant funds and the infusion of that capital? My guess is probably not.”

Dunn added, “This is really just a once in a generation opportunity.’

Cassle followed this comment by stating that getting a 50% market share was not an issue in other towns when Matrix Design Group and the town partnered together to spread the word of the service.

“Were you in competition with two other high speed internet providers?” Selectperson David Leavitt asked.

“Yes,” Dunn shared. “We’ve actually built in towns where there is incumbents already sourcing.

“The question is whether the community buys in to the idea of having assets held by the town,” he added. “What you can do with that revenue that you can use to reinvest in all of the economic development, if you can get that buy in, I think we get to the 50% and beyond.”

Marketing for the project has not begun and will not begin until the contract with MCA is signed, according to Dunn. Once signed, the town and Matrix will begin using funds allocated from Matrix, the state and Wilton to cover the expenses to promote the project and get the 50% market share.

If a 50% market share is not met within a certain time, which as of right now is not determined, the grant will no longer be available and any remaining funds used for marketing will be returned to their respective party.

After several discussions and one withdrawn motion, the selectboard voted to accept the MCA grant, four against one [Keith Swett opposed].

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