November 20, 2018

Cumberland County launches plan to address limited and slow broadband

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Brian Lippold, James W. Sewall Co. vice president of business development, talks to a group of Franklin County residents in January after that county's broadband access plan was completed. Sewall is doing a similar plan for Cumberland County.

The James W. Sewall Co. of Old Town will conduct a Cumberland County broadband access study, a first step in addressing limited and slow broadband in the county's farther reaches.

While the county, with nearly 300,000 residents, is the state's most populous, broadband issues still have an impact on economic development, including real estate, education and tourism, said Travis Kennedy, director of public affairs for the county government and project director of the broadband initiative.

The study by Sewall, expected to take four to six months, will help determine what the issues are and give an idea of possible solutions, including costs. It will be funded with $25,000 from a Community Development Block Grant and an additional $6,000 from the county.

Private-sector internet service is driven by density of populations and geography.

"Cumberland County is actually two counties," Kennedy said Tuesday. "It's separated by the length of Route 302, and once you get out to Windham and beyond [broadband] can be pretty spotty, or even non-existent."

He said the same is true for the islands off the county's coast.

"We're hearing the same stories you might be hearing up in Franklin or Lincoln County," he said. "Parents driving their kids to the library to do their homework, landlords having issues filling space."

Kennedy said once the study is complete, there won't just be one solution, but different ones across the county's 28 municipalities.

Brian Lippold, Sewall Co. vice president of business development, has been partnering with Franklin County on its initiative, which began last year and has gone beyond the study phase to the implementation phase.

Franklin County, in Maine's western mountains, has a population of just less than 30,000, but the bottom line is the same as that in Cumberland.

"It's becoming a more and more important issue from an economic development standpoint," Lippold said.

'Live it every day'

While those in Portland and its surrounding area may not have issues with broadband, Lippold said those who live on Cumberland County's islands and the rural western part of the county "live it every day."

One issue that Cumberland has in common with other, more rural, counties is that vacationers, or people who could work remotely from a scenic part of Maine, need better internet service.

"There are people who would like to move to Maine and bring their job with them," Lippold said.

The next step as the study gets underway is a survey, which will likely be available online. Paper copies would be provided at area libraries and town halls for those who can't connect.

Kennedy said that while more won't be known until the study is done, the hope is that communities with similar issues can collaborate on solutions.

The community effort in the towns of Gray, Windham, Standish and Raymond that began more than two years ago is what led the county to consider looking at the issue as a whole.

"Every community is slightly different," Kennedy said. For instance, in Raymond, on the shores of Sebago Lake, there's a concern about keeping vacationers longer, while in Windham, the concern is about businesses having adequate speed and in Gray, there being adequate connection in households.

In other towns, he said, the issue may not have arisen yet, but now that they're hearing about it, they're realizing the impact poor connections have.

A bigger focus

Broadband efforts in the state, already underway in many rural counties, got a boost in March with a state action plan that calls for full connectivity by 2023. While the focus is on rural areas where the population doesn't support private investment in better broadband, Lippold said the realization that better connectivity is a statewide economic driver is catching on.

"There's been a groundswell," he said, noting it was a part of many candidates' platforms this election, including all of the gubernatorial candidates. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce has also made it an issue.

Kennedy, who has been working on the Cumberland County initiative for more than a year, said the perception that populous Cumberland County doesn't have broadband issues is one that has to be overcome.

He said the county, too, can draw from places like Franklin County.

"The inspiration has come from communities in Maine with much bigger challenges and are figuring it out," he said. "If they can do it, Cumberland County can do itt, oo. If a playbook exists, we can copy it."


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