An Axiom Technologies technician installs the first fiber at an Islesford home. The Mills administration on May 27, 2021, approved $8.7 million for 20 broadband infrastructure projects in 11 Maine counties. Credit: Courtesy of Island Institute

Maine’s broadband expansion agency approved almost $8.7 million for 20 broadband infrastructure projects in 11 counties, Gov. Janet Mills said Thursday.

The money is the first of two rounds of grants to be awarded by the ConnectMaine Authority for high-speed internet projects. It is part of the $15 million bond that Maine voters approved in July 2020. ConnectMaine expects the projects to be built over the next year.

Mills said this is the first state-level investment in high-speed internet in more than a decade. The grants will cover 8,571 households and businesses in Maine. She called high-speed internet “as fundamental as electricity, heat and water” in a statement.

The total cost of the projects is $23.7 million, including required funding matches from internet service providers, municipalities and others.

Projects funded in the Midcoast area expand on the Mills administration’s ConnectKidsNow! initiative last year, which provided speedy internet to more than 700 students. The highest grant of $1.8 million, which will go toward a $5 million project, will bring fiber connections from Rockwood to Jackman. That is also the largest geographic project.

Applications for the remaining bond funding will be open later this year.

Much more broadband funding could be on the way from both the latest federal stimulus bill and an infrastructure proposal being debated in Congress. Mills has proposed investing $150 million Maine expects from the stimulus bill in broadband.

The governor has also proposed restructuring ConnectMaine to create the Maine Connectivity Authority, which would have a governing board with the power to bond and loan money. Mills has said the proposed state-level changes would elevate the authority’s ability to manage how broadband is built up in the state and make it cheaper for communities to improve service.