Travis Sheetz, a worker with a Washington state utility company installs fiber optic cable on a utility pole, Aug. 4, 2021, near Belfair, Wash. A recent report shows that nearly a quarter of Aroostook County residents do not have reliable broadband access. Credit: Ted S. Warren / AP

Nearly one-quarter of homes in Aroostook County lack reliable high-speed broadband, according to a report commissioned by a regional committee.

The analysis from Aroostook Partnership and county commissioners details exactly what areas in the county are unserved or underserved. It also mapped more than 36,000 homes and performed broadband speed tests to look for coverage gaps.

Aroostook Partnership President Paul Towle said the lack of broadband is stunting economic growth in the county. He’s seen an influx of newcomers to the region since the pandemic, but they’re only interested in buying a home there if the property has reliable broadband.

“It used to be the tenth question that got asked,” he said. “Now it’s more like the second or third question that gets asked of a property: Is there high-speed broadband?”

According to Northern Light Health, a lack of reliable broadband has also set back efforts to implement and expand telehealth programs in the county. About 23 percent of patients don’t have high-speed internet, according to the hospital network, but many of their conditions could be treated through virtual appointments.

Towle said the report is meant to serve as a blueprint for towns to use available federal and state funding to either create public broadband utilities or partner with private service providers.

“[Funding] is already being deployed; it’s already started,” he said. “If our towns don’t have that capacity and haven’t even thought about broadband and this funding is being depleted, they’re going to get left behind.”

Towle said communities now have to decide whether they want to partner with nearby towns and form their own public utility or work with private internet service providers to improve broadband coverage.

The Northern Maine Development Commission is hiring a dedicated person who will help municipalities choose and implement a broadband plan and will connect them to internet service providers.

This story appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.