The Bremen Broadband Committee is a pivotal factor in the town’s successful pursuit of high-speed internet, and has built a strong model for other communities to follow.
For the last two years Ernie Carroll, Sam Hafford, Matthew Hanly, Christa Thorpe, and Brian Withers met regularly with one simple goal: “To help bring reliable, affordable, future-proof high-speed internet access to every home in Bremen.”
Their signature achievement is the successful application for a $120,000 ConnectMaine grant that funded 20% of the cost to build the necessary infrastructure.
Tidewater Telecom Inc., a Nobleboro-based internet service provider and Bremen’s partner in the project, absorbed the remaining cost of the $619,000 project.
While Bremen residents did not contribute any public funds toward the community match required by ConnectME, Thorpe said the committee carefully documented in-kind contributions through hours put in by committee members and volunteers, as well as the use of town staff and facilities.
Throughout the process Bremen was a strong example of partnering with an incumbent internet service provider where ownership and revenue remain in the hands of the private company, but the town is the driving force that gets the project off the ground.
Alan Hinsey, marketing and sales director at Tidewater, admires the Bremen committee’s organization, dedication and continued engagement. He called the committee a trusted source in the community.
Hinsey said the committee met every month with Tidewater for a year, and even when there were frustrations, the lines of communication stayed open. He cited a central place for communication as one of the key attributes that made Bremen’s broadband committee so effective.
Thorpe, chair of the committee, said its success is due to “a handful of residents who were dedicated to seeing this project through and willing to think outside the box on how to help get it done.”
When the project began, members made one-on-one phone calls to residents to gain community support for the grant. And more recently, faced with delays due to the shortage of electricians to prepare homes to accept fiber, Thorpe cited “the boldness of a couple committee members to just say ‘well, we’ll do it. We’ll go shoot the string through your conduit and tie off your mule tape and help you get this done.’”
Thorpe is excited about the economic potential high-speed internet can bring to a community that doesn’t necessarily have a downtown.
“We have a lot of people working and taking advantage of the global economy from fiber running to their home,” she said.
According to Hanly, “One of the unique aspects of the Bremen Broadband Committee is that we tried to build things into the proposal, like the hot spots.”
In addition to in-home fiber, Tidewater agreed to install a hot spot or public internet access point for residents and visitors at the Bremen Fire Department. A second hot spot was recently approved for the town office.
Hanly credits the committee’s achievements to the diversity of the technology-based backgrounds of its members.
Thorpe works with the Island Institute’s community broadband team. Withers works for Cisco, a multinational technology company. Carroll has experience with electrical engineering, and Hafford has worked stringing telephone and cable lines.
Hanly said the committee highlights the value of retirees whose work experience and passion contributed so much to the project. “You can’t discount them,” he said.
According to a recent letter from Tidewater to current broadband applicants, the company received 282 applications from Bremen residents prior to the ConnectME project application deadline of July 31.
As of Aug. 31, 101 applicants have been fully installed.
Hinsey, reached by phone on Sept. 22, said Tidewater had from July 2020 to June 30, 2021 to meet ConnectME’s expectation of installing fiber on the poles in Bremen. That timeline was met.
But the final steps to bring the fiber into homes are ongoing and is the source of frustration for some residents.
Thorpe said initial conversations around completing the installation to homes centered on a late summer to early fall timeframe. Installation work is now expected to extend into the winter months.
“(Residents) want to be able to make a phone call and have someone from Tidewater answer that call and look up a spreadsheet and let them know what date they are in line for,” Thorpe said. “Now is good opportunity for Tidewater to really do the math as far as how many installations they can realistically get done and give Bremen residents a more solid statement.
“We did hope to be further along,” Hinsey said. But several factors contributed to delays in the process.
In the fall of 2020, Tidewater applied for and received a $2.6 million grant from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to provide broadband to approximately 350 unserved homes with students in four Maine communities – Bristol, Lincolnville, Hope, and Appleton.
According to Hinsey, the project required Tidewater to lay 103 miles of fiber by Dec. 31, 2020. The company informed Bremen residents that they were temporarily tabling work on the Bremen ConnectME Fiber Optic Broadband project to meet that deadline.
“Everyone wants (broadband) desperately, as quickly as they can get it. But this was a one-time opportunity for the students in Maine,” Hinsey said.
Unpredictable weather, supply chain disruptions and workforce shortages continue to impact installations.
“If you’re a fiber splicer and own a bucket truck you can write your own ticket,” Hinsey said.
Tidewater is back in Bremen now and ramping up installations to complete the project. Tidewater has a dedicated contractor and crew members assigned to work solely on Bremen installations with a goal pace of 15 installs per week.
Tidewater is approaching installations based on application dates as much as they can, but Hinsey noted that some installations require more extensive construction or lengthier conduits and that setting up the final appointments to bring fiber into the home requires homeowners to be available which adds to the scheduling challenge.
Tidewater has a weekly huddle every Thursday with the installation crews to assess where things stand.
“Then we break the huddle and go do the work,” Hinsey said. Tidewater is targeting the end of 2021 for completion of the Bremen project. “That’s our hope,” he said.
In the meantime, the demand for broadband continues to skyrocket.
“COVID showed us that there is this whole other level of reliance we have on the things that internet connects us to,” said Thorpe.
That reliance includes remote work, telehealth, entertainment, and education. Many jobs now require electronic applications making people’s livelihoods more dependent on digital connection and potentially placing internet access at the very core of survival, according to Thorpe.
According to Hinsey, Tidewater installed fiber in a record 525 homes in 2019. In 2020, it connected 666 homes. And as of Sept. 17, it had already completed installations in 667 homes.
More Lincoln County communities are looking at funding opportunities inherent in the American Rescue Plan Act to cover the costs of broadband infrastructure.
Damariscotta and Nobleboro recently formed broadband committees. South Bristol is considering broadband expansion. In June, the Whitefield Board of Selectmen unanimously agreed to use COVID-19 relief funds to pursue complete broadband coverage for the town. Somerville has been pursuing a ConnectMaine grant for the last two years.
These towns may benefit from some of the strategies and processes that worked so well for Bremen.
“The Bremen Broadband Committee set a goal that was ultimately met: To better the lives of our neighbors. And that continues to be the compass guiding us forward,” said Thorpe.