SEARSMONT, Maine — In the past, Pete Milinazzo, a select board member for the town of Searsmont, never got too worked up about the topic of high-speed broadband internet service.
But that has changed.
“I look at it like back in the ’30s, when the Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity to the people. We need it,” he said. “I just think it’s the right thing to do. It’s something the town needs.”
He’s not alone. A group of Waldo County residents is working to create an affordable broadband utility that every resident in Searsmont and four other towns should be able to access.
The pandemic showed Milinazzo how important having high-speed internet is to the residents of his town. In the spring of 2020, when schools closed and students were sent home, he saw cars parked by the town library and town office — places with high-speed internet.
“There were kids in those cars trying to do their homework,” he said.
Likewise, people who were sent to work from home discovered that their internet was too slow to allow them to do that effectively. He also heard of a woman from a nearby town who badly needed a job that she was qualified to do. But the job required her to work from home, which she could not do because she didn’t have the internet bandwidth. So she didn’t even apply, he said.
“In today’s world, high speed internet for work, education, telehealth, recreation and communication is a necessity, not a luxury,” he said.
The task force has been collecting data from residents and mapping the community’s level of current internet service, which members believe is low. Data indicate that 96 percent of Searsmont’s 70 miles of road are either underserved or not served at all by current internet service providers.
To address this problem, Searsmont and the neighboring communities of Liberty, Palermo, Montville and Freedom have formed the Southwest Waldo County Broadband Coalition, which has a long-term plan of creating a municipally-owned public broadband utility. Milinazzo said that the cost for this is likely to be between $7 and $10 million, and right now the hope is to pay for it through grant funding and, later, through revenue bonds.
“The utility itself would be responsible for paying the bonds,” he said. “We want to emphasize the fact that we’re not going to do it with taxpayer dollars.”
Another possible funding avenue, he said, is the federal stimulus money available through the American Rescue Plan Act. Waldo County has received the first half of the $7.7 million award, and county officials plan to invest roughly $3 million of that in upgrades to emergency services infrastructure.
County commissioners initially decided to allocate $20,000 in funds for each of the county’s 26 towns to invest in broadband infrastructure. But commissioners later removed the requirement that the funds be spent solely on broadband after learning some municipal officials wanted to use the money for other purposes.
That decision disappointed some local broadband activists, who would like to see more of the money used to invest in broadband infrastructure. A June analysis released by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy research group, characterized the American Rescue Plan as “the broadband down payment the country needs.”
“The second $3.8 million, we’d like to see them direct more for a broadband initiative,” Milinazzo said.
The next step for the Southwest Waldo County Broadband Coalition is to do a feasibility study, which is expected to cost between $9,000 and $12,000 per town. That study should provide the communities assurance that the project can happen and an estimated cost to do it, he said.
He is hoping that an informational meeting Tuesday evening about local broadband initiatives will get more people excited about that goal. During the meeting, the all-volunteer Searsmont Broadband Advisory Task Force will report on progress made over the last six months. Task force members will share the results of data collected about the community’s level of current internet service.
Completing the broadband project will take some time.
“If everything went smoothly, I think it would take three to five years,” he said, adding that he hopes to get a robust turnout for the meeting. “We’d like to get folks to come and serve as ambassadors to their neighbors.”
The public information meeting about broadband expansion will begin at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Searsmont Community Building. It also will be available to watch on Zoom.