Four-town plan to expand broadband takes shape

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WINDHAM — A project that aims to improve high-speed internet access in four Lakes Region towns could cost nearly $2.9 million, according to a planning document from the Lakes Region Broadband Partnership.

Tom Bartell of the Windham Economic Development Corporation, which has taken a primary role in the partnership, presented an update on the broadband planning efforts to Windham Town Council on April 24.

Last year the partnership – which includes Gray, Raymond, Standish and Windham, along with other local stakeholders in the business and education communities – received a $15,000 grant that enabled the group to work with AXIOM Technologies on a design for 40 miles of fiber-optic cable.

The project is still in the planning stages and the partner towns have not yet decided whether to move forward with construction.

If built, the cable could serve as a “backbone” for broadband connectivity in the four towns, with different access points along the cable route that could provide high-speed internet access for local businesses, schools and residents.

“Axiom has partnered with the four-community coalition of Windham, Gray, Standish and Raymond to (potentially) produce a fiber optic backbone extension from the 3 Ring Binder through the region,” reads a technology planning document included in the materials Bartell gave the Council. “The communities see this infrastructure planning as an avenue to attract federal dollars for a regionally transformative infrastructure project, grow the local economy, create a competitive edge with other parts of Maine and beyond and to bring high-speed connectivity to residential neighborhoods over time.”

“Three Ring Binder” is a statewide fiber highway that runs in three “rings” through southern and northern Maine and Down East with the goal of bringing high-speed internet to rural communities.

Under the plan developed with Axiom, 40 miles of fiber-optic cable could be built in eight different segments in the four different towns. The first stage would be connecting to the Three Ring Binder in Standish at the intersection of routes 25 and 114 and then running fiber along Route 35 to meet Route 302 in Windham.

From there, other potential sections would run to Windham municipal and school facilities on Route 202 and Windham Center Road, from North Windham along Route 115 to downtown Gray, from Route 35 in Standish along Whites Bridge Road and then to Route 302 in Windham, along Route 302 from Boody’s Corner in Windham to Raymond and up Route 85 to access the Raymond Town Office and schools, and then along Main Street in Raymond to the Public Safety building.

According to the plan, the cost breakdown of the project would include more than $913,000 for the fiber materials, more than $598,000 for fiber labor, and more than $306,000 for licensing — among other costs.

Raymond Town Manager Don Willard, who raised the issue of broadband connectivity during a March business forum with state legislators from the region, said this week that high-speed internet is “increasingly becoming a prerequisite for business.”

Willard said whether Raymond decides to move forward with the fiber plan is “ultimately, a selectman’s decision.”

“It’s going to come down, eventually, to what the elected officials feel,” Willard said, noting that in his mind, “we can’t afford to not do it.”

Bartell said last week that he expected to have an upcoming workshop on the initiative with the Windham Town Council and with the legislative bodies in the other partner towns.

In his update on the project, Bartell said Cumberland County is also engaged in the effort to improve high-speed internet activity in the region and county government also received grant funding to support additional planning efforts.

Cumberland County Government Director of Public Affairs Travis Kennedy said the county has received a $25,000 a Community Development Block Planning Grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for additional broadband planning in the region.

According to the county application for the planning grant, the funding would enable planning to develop a regional operating entity that would be responsible for broadband infrastructure, equipment, repairs and upgrades.

Kennedy said Cumberland County Commissioners have made broadband a priority in the last year or so, and indicated county government is looking to launch a “much bigger effort” to improve high-speed internet access down the road.

He credited the Lakes Region Broadband Partnership for a “phenomenal amount of research” and community engagement – and called the effort “kind of the ideal launching point for what we want to do.”

In addition to the $25,000 planning grant, Kennedy said the county is also receiving more than $141,000 that could support the construction of the section of fiber between Route 302 in North Windham and downtown Gray.

Editor’s note: Junker and Kennedy previously worked together in the Washington, D.C., office of U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. 

A map of addresses in Gray, Raymond, Standish and Windham included in planning materials for the Lakes Region Broadband Partnership.

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