Maine is expected to receive about $500 million in various state and federal funds for broadband expansion.
Philip Devlin, a selectman and member of the Harrison Broadband Advisory Committee, looks at a map of areas of the western Maine town that do and don't have broadband service. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

HARRISON, Maine — Philip Devlin, a selectman and member of the local broadband committee, waits patiently for the spinning circle on his computer screen to give way to downloaded content.

Others in this western Maine town of 2,500 residents also complained about slow broadband speeds or effectively no access at all. So Devlin was bewildered that Harrison, which had partnered with Consolidated Communications to help foot more than one third of the $4 million tab for a broadband project, did not get access to a recent wave of funding from the state.

“With Consolidated we had a significant cost and benefit,” Devlin said. “The decision caught us by surprise.”

The town will be able to reapply and qualify for new funding that will become available over the next couple years. Maine is expected to receive about $500 million in various state and federal funds for broadband expansion contained in COVID-19 relief measures.

Those sums would have been impossible to predict just three years ago. Vying for the money are the 12 percent of locations in the state that lack basic internet service and other communities like Harrison with some level of broadband but a need for more. Some are being rejected because of poor data or because they are up against areas with worse access.

Devlin sees broadband as a path to the town’s long-term sustainability and a means to attract more people and businesses.

“Some people who have second homes here would like to relocate permanently, but they need to have good broadband service to work from home, and people may need to do homeschooling,” he said.

The Maine Connectivity Authority, which administers state and federal grants, reviewed the 29 applications for its recent $34 million in American Rescue Plan funding, with another $17 million matched by local and private firms. It approved 12 of them.

It told Harrison that it had too much access to broadband already. Some 78 percent of Harrison’s addresses have access to Spectrum cable broadband.

Not everyone can afford Spectrum, Devlin said, and not everyone who subscribes gets the 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits per second upload speed that are considered a minimum for broadband service. Experts say 100 megabits per second is needed for smooth streaming and other data-intensive work.

So far, the number of addresses in Harrison with service above the bare minimum speed is unknown. That makes it difficult for the state to determine the level of service in locations, said Andrew Butcher, president of the Maine Connectivity Authority.

“Unsuccessful projects had a low percentage of unserved locations, although they still could have a high level of need,” he said. “It’s a case of bad not being bad enough.”

The authority is conducting surveys about the first round of funding and may adjust eligibility parameters for the second round of grants this August, Butcher said. First-round funding went mostly to northern and central rural counties, he said, covering more than 16,000 homes and businesses in 31 communities.

The state is expecting even more federal money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes a provision to give each state $100 million to expand broadband in unserved locations. The federal government likely will allocate more, Butcher said, with Maine expecting up to $250 million.

The authority is recommending that communities form regional partnerships to amplify their voice in getting funding and identify new opportunities for broadband, Butcher said.

One of the groups that was granted $8.1 million included the Greater East Grand Economic Council and Consolidated. That group includes parts of Danforth, Drew Plantation, Glenwood Plantation, Orient, Reed Plantation and Weston in Aroostook and Washington counties.

Harrison is considering partnering with nearby towns in Cumberland County, including Naples and Casco, Devlin said.

“We can see if they have found anything different or see other paths,” Devlin said. “If there are four or five towns in the same situation as Harrison, maybe that would carry more weight.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the amount of money Consolidated Communications would pay toward the Harrison broadband project. New funding will also come from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.