The Hancock County Court House in Ellsworth. Credit: Gabor Degre / AP

Towns across Hancock County have been working to increase access to faster and more reliable internet coverage. The county government has signaled it’s willing to chip in millions of dollars in federal funds to make it happen.

The Hancock County commissioners have hired Mission Broadband, a Bangor-based consultant, and put out a survey seeking data on broadband access, cost and quality to aid them in figuring out how to best help local efforts. While no official decision has been made, the county has indicated it’s ready to allocate half of its $10.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act money to broadband, said Scott Adkins, the county administrator.

While neighboring counties including Knox and Waldo have set other priorities for the funding, broadband was near the top of the list for Hancock, according to Adkins. In Penobscot County, some residents have called for officials to use money to create more affordable housing. Officials there have considered using it to expand the overcrowded jail.  

Getting better internet access to more parts of Hancock County could attract more people to live in the area, improve telehealth options and make online education easier.

“Broadband is the future of our economy,” he said.

While some parts of the county have good access to the internet, others have little to none, said John Dougherty, Mission Broadband’s vice president and general manager.

There is a thirst for better internet in the region and several towns have created broadband committees or banded together to try and improve it. Mission Broadband has been tasked with reaching out to every town to see what efforts are underway.

In Brooksville, two 2018 surveys found that 75 percent of respondents were unhappy with their current internet service and about the same percentage had DSL service. Since then, two wireless providers cut service to the town and, while there have been some upgrades for other providers, none offer speed and reliability that could be provided through a fiber optic connection, according to a 2021 report.

Downtown Blue Hill generally has good service provided by Spectrum, said Butler Smythe, an organizer behind Peninsula Utility for Broadband, a group that has been working to get broadband to parts of the Blue Hill peninsula. But you don’t have to go far to find people who can’t connect.

“We have people within a quarter mile of downtown who are unable to get Spectrum,” he said. Blue Hill, Brooksville, Deer Isle and Penobscot are waiting to hear if the state will be awarded a federal grant to provide a stronger network to the area. If that doesn’t happen, the towns could work with Consolidated Communications to build a fiber optic network and ARPA money could be one of several funding sources, according to a recently released report from the towns.

Lamoine hopes to tap into the county funding for a pending project. The rural coastal town has a pending agreement with Spectrum to extend service into underserved parts of the community. Lamoine would have to spend $220,000 for the expansion and is looking to get the county to cover half of that, said Stu Marckoon, the town’s administrative assistant.

“It would be significantly better internet coverage,” he said. “A lot of people work from their homes and they need something faster than dial-up.”