(TNS) — Charlie Woodworth says it all started with a group of citizen leaders first asking themselves and others four years ago "What's holding Franklin County back from success?"
The answer, they determined, was reliable, high-speed Internet. The Franklin County Broadband Initiative was formed and its efforts now face another major question: Will residents pay roughly $1 million to bring a $10 million project to six towns?
Woodworth, the executive director of the Greater Franklin Development Council, said nearly one-quarter of the county's 30,000 residents don't have reliable Internet. He's quick to point out how that hurts the region.
Students don't have the bandwidth to do homework or adults to work from home. It makes selling a house, encouraging people to move in, and attracting business more challenging.
"We have a recreational economy in the northern half of the county with Sugarloaf, Carrabassett Valley and the Rangeley area, many second homes," said Woodworth. "Those homeowners would love to spend more time up here, and they would if they had connectivity, but they don't. So they come up for a weekend and get out of here as fast as they can." More and longer stays would benefit the local economy, he said. Due to population density, Farmington, much of Wilton and Jay, and the main streets in Phillips and Strong are served, he said. But, "outside of that, it's not there."
A study by the Franklin County initiative found that connecting the entire county to high-speed fiber would cost $73 million, so the group is approaching the challenge one region at a time: First is a $10 million project to connect Carthage, Weld, Temple, Wilton, and Perkins and Washington townships, about 2,000 homes.
Matrix Engineering is willing to connect all six, investing $7 million, if the six collectively shoulder $3 million in pole attachment fees. Woodworth said Matrix "is willing to invest to allow for a favorable return." Though headquartered in New Jersey, the company has networks similar to the Franklin County project in Massachusetts and Vermont.
In August, the Greater Franklin Development Council secured a $1 million federal grant from the Northern Border Regional Commission to help. Soon, Woodworth will apply for a state grant, ultimately hoping to bring the towns' share down to $1 million.
Over the next several months, residents will decide at their town meetings if they're willing to contribute.
It needs to be a yes from all six towns to go ahead. "All of the select boards, they understand the opportunity, but they also understand — and we support this — it's up to the citizens, what do they want for their town?" Woodworth said. "A big concern for any resident is, well, what's it going to cost? Fair enough. How about the opportunity cost? What will it cost you if you don't invest, because right now, with a shrinking population, fewer and fewer people are left to carry the burden of the town taxes."
He believes reliable Internet will attract people to the county and keep children here from being disadvantaged: After a spring of remote learning, the Mt. Blue school district found 30% of students couldn't do their homework from home, according to Woodworth. "Thirty percent — that's unacceptable," he said. "The pandemic is shining a very bright light on these needs, just magnifying everything we were talking about prior to the pandemic. It all was there, but now it's much more difficult to ignore."
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