APPLETON — Fed up folks in Appleton sounded off on the broadband issue at the town Select Board meeting Sept. 13, hurling vitriol at provider Consolidated Communications Company, while a spokesman for a rival offered hope for the future.
Tidewater Marketing and Sales Director Alan Hinsey said the Maine Connectivity Authority is gearing up to award $150 million in grants — maybe up to $300 million — to help provide and improve internet service to communities. Hinsey was invited to address the board by member Peter Beckett, who also serves on the town’s broadband committee. Tidewater provides fiber optic internet service to many homes in town.
Appleton earlier this year set aside $66,000 to add to a grant Tidewater sought for Appleton upgrades from the authority’s predecessor, ConnectMe. It was to provide service to households not yet tied in. Tidewater’s application was rejected, however — a first for the Maine-based firm, Hinsey said.
That left the 44 Appleton homes not yet upgraded with Tidewater fiber optic internet still without service or with often miserable service, according to those who addressed the meeting in person or via emails. Service was not initially provided to some homes because of the cost of reaching some areas. Those are the folks Tidewater is seeking to connect via another round of, mostly federal, funding.
But some customers of the town’s other provider sounded off in person and emails to the board about what they described as miserable internet, TV and phone service from Consolidated Communications. One called her flawed service a matter of “life and death.”
The board discussion took place as town broadband committees from Appleton and Hope prepared for a joint meeting on Thursday, Sept. 22 at 5 pm at the Hope Town Office, 441 Camden St.
After hearing broadband horror stories from the audience and reading four emails from unhappy residents, Board Chair Lorie Costigan suggested the town is caught in the middle and is blamed for something over which it has no control.
“I have to say as Chair that I am a bit concerned that they seem to have thought that we voted on anything other than in the affirmative to support the grant the last time, or that there seems to be an understanding…or thought process that the internet is something that we, the elected body, regulate or offer.”
Calling the situation “a little tricky in my mind,” she took the opportunity to clarify what might be misconceptions among residents about what role the Town of Appleton and its Select Board play, particularly on the issue of Tidewater not receiving grant funding earlier in the year.
“People think it was a municipal decision,” Costigan said. “I want to make it clear this board had no involvement.”
And as if to hammer home the point, she then returned later in the meeting to the same topic. “To reiterate,” Costigan said, “this board approved a grant application that was made by Tidewater earlier in the year and offered a portion of its (federal) ARPA funding to assist in that grant application and Tidewater failed to receive that grant from ConnectMe . So, this board’s only action to date has been to approve a grant application…and that application was rejected.”
She also underlined the fact that the broadband industry has little or no oversight. “It’s a very important point,” she said. “The internet is not considered a utility…there is no higher authority for accountability,”
And Costigan pressed Hinsey to state publicly the positive role Appleton played in the amount of internet connectivity the town actually has. All but 44 homes have service, according to Hinsey.
Appleton, he replied, was “very supportive.”
He said Tidewater is ready to apply in the new round of grant funding when guidelines are made available. He expects the first round to begin in October and said money for the firm’s hoped-for Appleton project would most likely be part of a $20 million federal funding pool designated for just the sort of situation being experienced by the 44 households.
And there will be a new wrinkle in the way things are done, he added. private firms will be involved in what is being called the “line extension” funding category.
“It’s brand new,” Hinsey said. “We are going to request RFQs (Request for Quote) from any provider who wants to participate and can provide a line extension. Once they qualify, then come in with their proposals and it becomes a negotiated process. That has never been done before,” he said, adding the new approach could result in cost savings.
Whatever the outcome, residents upset with Consolidated Communications were not shy to say so, with a few also tossing barbs at a town committee’s proposal to spend Covid-related federal funding not on broadband relief but on a place to store funeral ashes at the cemetery while some residents still struggle with internet problems.
Resident Scott’s Redmond’s and three other emails to the board were read into the record by Costigan.
Redmond’s listed a litany of frustrating issues with his provider, which he said will only get worse once his kids start using the internet for school.
In his neighborhood he said, “This has been a constant issue with Consolidated for the past 10 years or so,” adding, “Seeing that the rest of the community in Appleton has access to fiber optic internet it’s only fair to offer it to everyone else.”
Bob Bocko agreed when he wrote about internet access for all. “To my mind that has a much higher priority than the niceness of a place for loved one’s ashes to be kept at Pine Grove (Cemetery)…helping those who still lack access to high speed internet should take priority. I would go so far as to say that it’s a modern necessity of life.”
Beth Linscott’s email about broadband service read in part, “When did we start only offering opportunities to some residents but not others depending on what end of town you live on or who is on your road. Shame on you.”
And from Susan White there was this plea. “My husbands heart monitor requires the DSL to record his pacemaker… So, this is a matter really of life and death.”
Her email continued, “We have to shut off everything just to watch TV. I can’t get music. I get bumped off zoom meetings, I’ve missed deadlines… it’s just insane and they (Consolidated) really really don’t care. They have been stripping that company right down to the bones. I am just beside myself.”
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