The key to expanding high speed internet service throughout Maine is generating demand for service so that internet service providers can build out the necessary networks and infrastructure. Demand and the resultant “take rate” (use of service) comes when communities are in the drivers seat of the planning and development process. Communities can drive the process when they are equipped and educated around how to proceed with the broadband planning process (not an easy task). The Maine West Broadband Bootcamp seeks to enable that hyper-local degree of community readiness.
Starting in the summer of 2020 - after three years of planning and digital inclusion work Maine West developed the Broadband Boot Camp in response to increased demand for high-speed internet and as an important step to building broad community support, readiness and buy-in for expanding service. As a pilot initiative it is hoped that The Boot Camp can be replicated in other areas of the state.
From the beginning we sought outside advice and financial support for the Boot Camp. The Northern Forest Center presented the concept of the Boot Camp to the Maine Community Foundation and was awarded a grant that is helping underwrite the cost of outside speakers and site visits to meet with and learn from town officials who have been successful in expanding high-speed broadband. MCF’s support has made it possible for us to offer Boot Camp participation at no cost to participating towns.
To help design the Boot Camp we reached out to some of the most knowledgeable and experienced people in Maine, and they are also advising us throughout the implementation of it. The Boot Camp advisory group includes Peggy Schaffer with the ConnectMaine Authority, Nick Battista and Kendra Jo Grindle with the Island Institute, and Andrew Butcher with the Maine Broadband Coalition. We also adopted the Island Institute’s Community-Driven Broadband Process as the backbone for the Boot Camp. This publication tailors the broadband development process to small communities and spells it out in layman’s terms.
Following the Community-Driven Broadband Process we created seven modules or workshops that are 90-120 minutes. These modules are scheduled between July and December with a dedicated learning curriculum and regular sets of tasks and homework for participating communities to complete. The pandemic has caused us to shift from in person meetings and site visits to conducting the modules and local committee meetings virtually. This transition to virtual communication and participation has certainly emphasized the need for better broadband across all of the towns.
The first module was held in July and functioned as an orientation with goal setting and introductions of town committee members to each other and members of the Boot Camp advisory group to participants. The second module was held in early September and focused on the benefits of use and return on investment. Michael Curri with the Strategic Networks Group was the presenter sharing evidence of the economic impact of investing in better broadband. Septebmer’s module will explore options for expanding broadband infrastructure, featuring specific case studies and introducing different approaches to financing broadband expansion. A goal of the Boot Camp is that by the last module in December participating towns will be ready to apply for a ConnectMaine planning or infrastructure grant in the spring of 2021 and otherwise move forward with their plans for improving broadband.
The 27 towns in the Maine West region or northern Oxford County were targeted to participate in the Boot Camp. Several towns in Cumberland County that border Oxford County – Harrison, Naples and Bridgton—also expressed an interest in participating in the Boot Camp. Interested towns were asked to form committees of 3-5 people with at least one person being an elected or appointed town official (i.e., a select person or the town manager). Nine towns plus a regional collaboration of three towns and an Unorganized Territory in the Bethel or Mahoosuc area are participating in the Boot Camp: Fryeburg, Denmark, Bridgton, Buckfield, Naples, Harrison, Sumner, Hartford, Hebron, Newry, Albany, Bethel, Woodstock.
The Boot Camp is designed to be flexible and responsive to the needs of the participating towns and at the same time foster collaboration and help the towns avoid duplication of effort. Many of the towns are focused on mapping existing internet service and who provides it, surveying residents and businesses and testing existing internet speeds to develop a nuanced picture of where high-speed broadband is needed and how residents want to use it. Recognizing that Boot Camp towns have a common interest in finding out how residents and businesses use the internet and how satisfied they are with their service, various approaches to using a common survey instrument are being explored along with being able to aggregate the survey data regionally as well as locally. A member of the Harrison Broadband Committee mapped the addresses of an internet service provider that also serves other Boot Camp communities. This approach to mapping has been shared with the other Boot Camp communities so that they can map this ISPs service in their towns.
The Boot Camp experiment continues for the next several months and we look forward to sharing another update on its evolution and the participating towns’ progress toward improving broadband.
Mike Wilson, Senior Program Director
Northern Forest Center
Mia Purcell, VP for Economic Development and Impact
Community Concepts Finance Corporation