Fiber connections bring broadband internet to businesses and households in Down East Maine. Credit: Courtesy of the Downeast Broadband Utility

BELFAST, Maine — An underserved part of the city that has had to rely on slower internet connections is getting access to lightning-fast speeds under a federally subsidized expansion project by a Maine-based provider.

Biddeford-based GWI is launching the first phase of a project in July that will offer fiber broadband network access to all residents in Belfast. The first phase will encompass most of the project, providing high-speed access to more than 1,500 residential households and 650 businesses mostly in western Belfast, according to company spokesperson Colin Haley.

Though it was once considered a luxury, reliable high-speed internet has become recognized as more of a necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under several federal and state programs, Maine is on track to spend at least $500 million in public money on broadband expansion to improve connections long seen as lagging on the national scale.

“The advancements in technology and the pace of change have really made [the internet] one of those things that is a necessity for human beings,” Haley said.

The GWI project is being done through the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program. The company will build the infrastructure in Belfast. The FCC will then cover a portion of internet bills for Belfast households that earn incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level or receive government benefits like food stamps and Medicaid.

In the first phase, GWI will construct 72 miles of fiber connections, enough to offer broadband access to more than 1,500 residential households and 650 businesses. The project will span different regions of the city lacking access to faster internet, from Poors Mill Road and Holmes Mill to downtown Belfast, Halls Corner and Dog Island Corner.

Some of these households have high-speed access, but Haley and City Councilor Mary Mortier said the project is aimed at assisting households using antiquated or insufficient internet systems. That includes hot spots and DSL connections, the latter of which is a system used in the 1990s and early 2000s that accesses the internet through telephone networks.

“It’s a bare-bones way to get coverage. Internet connectivity is now the same as when the United States was electrified,” Mortier said. “If you don’t have an adequate internet connection today, you’re in the dark.”

While Belfast is the commerce hub of Waldo County, Maine Connectivity Authority data show it has very few households with high-quality connections, with 46 percent lacking adequate broadband services and 37 percent lacking broadband altogether.

Fiber, which is generally 10 to 20 times faster than cable connections, first came to Belfast in 2012. But Mortier said that costs of building out those pathways have deterred companies from investing in a large-scale project to expand access across the whole city. As a result, internet access resources are consolidated in specific neighborhoods, Mortier said.

While it stands to profit from the project, Haley said GWI’s motive stems from serving the community as America’s only B Corporation internet service provider and one of 14 B-Corp certified businesses in Maine. A for-profit company receives that certification when it meets certification standards that show it positively affects communities.

GWI is anticipating to begin construction of the first phase in July and begin serving those households by late August or September. Haley said the rough estimate for the first phase is somewhere between $4 million and $5 million dollars. GWI’s goal is to create broadband access for all households in Belfast by the end of the second phase, which is still in planning stages.