The town of Penobscot wants to design a fiber-optic system for its residents this year. Credit: Richard B. Levine | Sipa USA | TNS

A group of volunteers is working toward bringing more broadband internet service to the communities of Maine’s Blue Hill peninsula, starting with the Hancock County town of Penobscot.

The Penobscot Broadband Committee is seeking an engineer to design a fiber-optic broadband system that could be installed in Penobscot next year, said Joel Katz, a committee member and retired executive director of the Maine Center for the Arts, now known as the Collins Center for the Arts, at the University of Maine in Orono.

“At the same time, we are talking with all the other towns on the peninsula about broadband because we all have the same problems,” Katz added Thursday. “We are sharing frustrations and trying to pull things together as a region. That’s a tough one.”

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Penobscot residents agreed during a town meeting last month to provide as much as $10,000 this year to fund the design of the town’s system. The committee began reviewing design proposals last week and hopes to finish the reviews in July.

A completed design is expected by December, Katz said.

Penobscot thus joins several clusters of towns across Maine trying to move faster on the internet. Just 12 percent of Maine households and businesses are considered to have access to effective broadband, according to the ConnectME Authority.

Most rural internet systems operate on copper wires that, unlike fiber-optic cables, are not built for fast transmission of computer data. That’s what Katz said he found when he moved from Richmond, Virginia, about two years ago.

The move was the beginning of what he called his “wonderful journey back to 1950s” technology.

Privately funded, commercial internet service in Penobscot is “barely functional,” Katz said, compared with the broadband fiber-optic systems in large cities like Richmond.

Baileyville, Calais, the Cranberry Isles, Dover-Foxcroft, Madawaska, Monson, and the three Katahdin region towns of East Millinocket, Medway and Millinocket are among municipalities looking to build or expand public or privately owned broadband service over the next few years.

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Faster internet speeds are critical to keeping Maine competitive, said Jessica Masse, a member of the Katahdin Broadband Committee. Like the Penobscot committee, the Katahdin committee members are planning meetings to fashion regional networks. They will decide on a model to follow with their system design when they meet April 26.

“You have to lay fiber. The benefit of fiber is that it is future-proof,” Masse said Thursday. “We can grow with this technology for decades without needing to change it out.”

“It is an infrastructure investment that is just as important as public roads,” she added.

Free public access to WiFi internet service is a critical part of the planning. Millinocket began offering free wireless service to its downtown in July, and the other Katahdin downtowns will get it by summer.

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But broadband is expensive. It is estimated, Katz said, that laying cable over Penobscot’s 25 miles of roads will cost as much as $1.5 million, or about $1,200 per each of the town’s approximately 1,250 residents.

Luckily, federal and state grant money can help, Katz said.

“It’s not brain surgery. Everybody’s doing it,” Katz said. “It’s just a question of rolling out acceptable service to the last mile of America, rural service that includes this little burg here.”

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