Commissioners said no to funding, but Piscataquis County will go ahead with broadband anyway

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Piscataquis County will soon have a contact person to organize community efforts and serve as a guide to municipalities for broadband expansion.

As part of the Maine Broadband Coalition’s new community of practice program, leaders from across the state working to advance broadband, including John Shea, executive director of the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council, joined a cohort to share learning and resources.

This is a major step for broadband in Piscataquis, where internet is spotty in rural parts of the county. Over the past few months, the economic development group conducted a broadband study that identified gaps and how to fill them, which serves as a baseline for municipalities. In February, Piscataquis County commissioners rejected an application for funding that would have allowed the economic development council and a consulting firm to pursue education and broadband subsidy projects.

DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine – March 28, 2022 – John Shea, executive director of the Piscataquis County Economic Development Board, provides an update on broadband efforts during a meeting on Monday. It was Shea’s last meeting, as he leaves to lead a Kansas nonprofit. (Valerie Royzman | BDN)

Although Shea is leaving in April to lead a nonprofit in Kansas, the new executive director will work closely with a volunteer called a Connectivity Booster, who will receive a stipend through the Community of Practice program. This person can answer questions, arrange meetings, collect data, and work with municipalities to find broadband expansion solutions that meet community needs.

Most municipalities in Piscataquis County have been approached by service providers since the publication of the completed study in December 2021, Shea said. City leaders reached out to him about the most wise ways to move forward and spend their American Rescue Plan Act funds, he said.

Shea recently heard of a group of about six cities looking to work with a provider to develop broadband in their area, he said.

Although the Piscataquis County Economic Development Board doesn’t have Brian Lippold of Casco Bay Advisors — the consulting firm that did the broadband study — under contract, he does work with some communities and Shea has. recommended as a resource, he said.

The ConnectMaine Authority, the state’s broadband agency, provided funding for the community of practice program, which will allow small towns with limited resources to work with a resource person to kick-start broadband efforts, said Clara McCool, Regional Broadband Associate for Greater Portland. Council of Governments.

McCool spoke about the program at a meeting of the Piscataquis County Economic Development Board on Monday. She co-chairs the program and efforts to find counties and regions a connectivity booster with Christa Thorpe of the Rockland-based Island Institute.

The connectivity booster will likely be chosen in a month or two, McCool said. Ideally, the person would be someone already engaged in broadband efforts and geographically located in the area they will serve, she said.

Through the Community of Practice program, the Maine Broadband Coalition is helping the connectivity booster prepare for their role, including basic training on the technology they’ll need, she said.

“With Piscataquis, where they did this inventory and gap analysis, I think there are a lot of cities wondering what to do once they realize there is a lack of broadband,” she said. “It’s like, what now? Hopefully, the connectivity booster will be someone these cities can go to and someone they can trust.

The Connectivity Booster will serve as an assistant to the Piscataquis County Community of Practice Manager. This person will be an educator, organizer and administrator, said Sam Naumann, local advocacy coordinator for the Maine Broadband Coalition.

For example, the connectivity booster would inform municipalities about funding, which technology makes sense in their area and next steps, he said. This volunteer could organize regional discussions that could lead to collaboration. They might also organize meetings and record minutes or help write grant applications, he said.

Naumann called the recent Piscataquis County broadband study “groundbreaking.” Groundwork is critical to answering the technical questions the county and municipalities need to answer before approaching a private provider on how to get to the finish line with broadband expansion, he said. declared.

Naumann met with officials in Dover-Foxcroft last week to discuss broadband.

At Monday’s meeting, Shea also highlighted the economic group’s economic development strategy, which is finally moving forward after a significant delay in federal funds, he said. The Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine will serve as the consultancy, he said.

“The process will basically start with forming a very large and diverse committee of stakeholders to lead the project, maybe 25 or 30 people,” he said. “It will be companies, elected municipal officials, elected officials, NGOs [non-governmental organizations]other stakeholders and engaged citizens and of course partners like EMDC [Eastern Maine Development Corp.].”

The Piscataquis County Economic Development Board is looking for its next CEO. The opening was posted online earlier this week.

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