DOVER-FOXCROFT — In 2016 the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council (PCEDC) was awarded $120,000 for broadband internet planning from the Office of the Maine Attorney General, with the funds coming from consumer settlements the office reached with several wireless carriers. The monies helped the PCEDC work with Axiom Technologies of Machias to conduct a survey of the region to help develop a regional technology plan aimed at economic and community development.
During a presentation to the Piscataquis County Commissioners at a Jan. 16 meeting, PCEDC Executive Director Chris Winstead said about a year prior the commissioners gave him approval to talk with each community across the region to learn about the town’s needs and wants in relation to broadband. Winstead in addition to meeting with each selectboard, about 500 survey responses were made to help develop the plan.
Winstead was joined by Axiom Technologies President Mark Ouellette who said, “We want to stop the haves vs. haves not.” Ouellette added, “That’s our goal ultimately for our company,” as Axiom Technologies is working to bring broadband to the rural parts of Maine.
The firm was selected from a pool of several companies to work with the PCEDC, based on Axiom Technology’s history of finding solutions for rural communities to access broadband.
Ouellette said the regional technology plan — which is scheduled to be posted at www.pcedc.org as Winstead meets with communities across Piscatquis County — has four main components, with the first “to give you a town by town assessment and plan.” He explained the information details the service providers available for each community, pricing for fiber or wireless broadband and infrastructure in place and what could be installed.
Another component of the regional technology plan is how to utilize the “three-ring binder,” which he said runs through Maine along utility poles and is comprised of fiber for high-speed internet access. “You would be building something off of that to get closer to the rural parts of the county,” he said.
“We give you a digital inclusion report, a comprehensive look at all surveys we collected on how you can do more education work on how people can use the internet,” Ouellette said about the third component. He mentioned emailing friends and family, Skyping with grandchildren and watching Netflix programs without buffering as examples.
“We take those three things and explain how to use various devices and social media,” Ouellette said, with this aspect of the plan aimed at segments of the population who may not use or regularly use the internet.
The fourth component of the regional technology plan involves fixed wireless capabilities. Ouellette said existing wireless coverages are looked at “to create maps of what that would look like from a coverage perspective.” He said this would help decision-makers see how wireless coverage could be provided.
“For most people this is a very, very critical part of their lives,” Ouellette said, mentioning that broadband access is now as critical as utilities.
“In conclusion, what we are giving you is a very serious look at something you should take very seriously,” he said. Ouellette said Piscataquis County is a beautiful place and county and town officials should want to attract people and build on the assets in place and this can be done in part by improving access to broadband in the region.
Winstead mentioned how he recently moved from Bangor to Greenville, and while he his internet costs are more he is still able to access all the large data documents needed in grant applications and other aspects of his job. He said this is not the case in other parts of the region for residents who want to telecommute for work.
The PCEDC executive director said he talked with a Medford resident who works in healthcare who would telecommute if the capabilities were in place rather than drive to the Bangor area every day. Winstead said working from home would allow this individual to save money, which could then be reinvested in his family and community
“Connecting the connectivity to economic activity is really what captures people’s imaginations,” Ouellette said.
“Three years ago I was introduced to the concept of a three-ring binder,” said Rep. Norm Higgins, I-Dover-Foxcroft, who Winstead said helped secure the $120,000 for the regional planning grant. Higgins compared not accessing the high speed capabilities of the three-ring binder to constructing the Interstate Highway System and not building any off ramps.
Higgins said GWI ran a line to The Mill in downtown from the three-ring binder and now the small businesses in this complex have a high-speed connection.
He said if any of the gubernatorial candidates were to be asked if they support increasing broadband access the answer from each would be yes, but Rep. Higgins said bills on the matter never progress far in Augusta. “Now if we want broadband we need to find a way to do it ourselves,” he said, saying this is why he approached Winstead several years prior.
The representative then encouraged all parties to look at the regional technology plan and think about how the document suggestions may be implemented.
“I think what you will see and what we are working on is working with our communities,” Winstead said. “Slowly, piece by piece, we are lighting up our county.”
Ouellette mentioned that while many residents have internet access through their Smartphones, he said cellular networks are overtaxed and he said working on the small screen often is more difficult compared to a laptop or other device.
“I think the next step is Chris has an ambitious schedule to meet with the boards of selectmen,” County Manager Tom Lizotte said, as Winstead plans to travel to the dozen-plus groups of town officials to present and discuss the regional technology plan.
Stuart Hedstrom, Piscataquis Observer • January 22, 2018