The same day more than 1,300 voters in Camden, Rockport and Thomaston approved a first step towards creating a nonprofit internet utility, Knox County Commissioners signaled they are in no rush to commit a portion of $7 million in expected federal funds to broadband internet development.

The majorities of voters in favor of Midcoast Internet were 91% (714-67) in Camden, 79% in Rockport (400-115) and 81% (228-51) in Thomaston.

The votes authorized entering into an interlocal agreement to found the Midcoast Internet Development Corporation, which will create the nonprofit internet utility.

At a June 8 meeting, County Commissioner Dorothy Meriwether told elected officials and individuals from Camden, Cushing, Hope, Rockland, Rockport and Thomaston “I know you are anxious to get the money, but time is not of the essence for us.”

There is a lot to do to determine the priorities for the money, including the commissioners going out and talking to all the towns, she said. Meriwether represents the towns of Thomaston, South Thomaston, Rockland and Owls Head.

Commissioner Sharyn Pohlman wants to explore all the options for developing broadband, including partnering with the state and Maine Connect Authority.

She anticipates more discussions with the Coalition and asked to see their business plan and feasibility study. Pohlman represents the towns of Camden, Rockport, Hope, Appleton and six island towns.

Deb Hall, chairwoman of the Coalition, said June 11 that for internet speeds of 100 mbps upload and download, the expected monthly cost to customers is in the range of $55 to $60, which is what two Internet companies currently serving this area charge.

The purpose of the American Rescue Plan funds, given to Knox County, “is to help us recover from a pandemic to create economic opportunity and other recovery activities. To suggest there’s no urgency in using the funds is quite astonishing and goes against the intent of the legislation,” Hall said.

At the Commissioners meeting, Hall and representatives of six Knox County towns spoke in support of Midcoast Internet Coalition’s goals of bringing affordable, high speed internet to Knox County residents.

Hall said nine towns have signed onto guiding principles that support the creation of a regional municipal utility district — an open access fiber network delivering high speed internet connections and access to every home and business. She is the former chairwoman of the Rockport Select Board.

Camden Town Manager Audra Caler said the Coalition hopes for a commitment of $4 million from the County’s ARP funds. This would be used as seed money for the initial phase build-out of the fiber-optic network, which is expected to cost $16 million.

The $4 million would be matched through the Maine Connectivity Network and the remaining $8 million will be raised through a FAME-backed loan, she said.

Seed funding from federal and state grants will help build the fiber-optic network more quickly and make the service more affordable for customers, by reducing debt payments, “This will benefit the most vulnerable and low-income households within the county,” Caler said.

The Coalition is working with Axiom Technologies to develop a detailed financial model and 5-year cost and revenue projection for the utility.

Caler also urged commissioners to partner with the Coalition and take a seat on its Board of Directors.

Thomaston’s Economic Development Specialist Brian Doyle spoke about the importance of broadband internet in retaining, growing and attracting businesses to Maine.

The Cultivated Thread in Bath, which makes handwoven wearables and home goods switched from selling products at fairs and markets to becoming an e-commerce site due to the pandemic, he said. As a result, the company gained recognition nationally “as a sought after business in Maine,” he said.

Lyman Morse on Thomaston Harbor needs high speed internet to share large documents and images for its prototyping and small run manufacturing businesses for clients including Department of Defense, architectural firms and scientific laboratories, Doyle said.

Investment in rural technology is key to Millinocket’s success in attracting Nautilus Data Technologies, a $300 million data center development, according to Doyle.

Cushing Selectperson Craig Currie, whose spouse is the principal at Cushing Community School, saw that when schools went to remote learning during the pandemic, RSU13 needed to hand out internet hotspot devices and families had to travel to the school parking lot so their children could do homework. This was due to lack of access to fast broadband in their homes, he said.

Currie called support of nonprofit broadband “probably one of the most equitable ways Knox County could use a portion of the ARP funds.”

Hope Select Board Chairwoman Sarah Smith said her town formed a broadband committee because they see how vital high-speed internet is to economic opportunity in their community. The town jumped on the opportunity to work with LCI Tidewater, which obtained federal Cares Act money to run fiber to homes with students doing distance learning.

While the town is “too far down the pike with them (LCI) to not continue to build out what we’ve got here,” Hope officials support the Midcoast Internet Coalition because LCI’s “rates are extremely expensive compared the averages and service is spotty,” she said.

Smith hopes “having a public network like the Midcoast Internet “will bring competition to the area and that will indirectly help Hope, by hopefully driving prices down.”

Hall said following the June 8 voter approval Rockport and Camden will appoint their representatives to the Midcoast Internet Development Corporation, articles of incorporation will be filed, and other Coalition towns will appoint their representatives. They expect to have the feasibility study completed in August.

Rockland City Councilor Nate Davis talked about the economic benefit universal high- speed internet would bring to the local economy. Councilor Ben Dorr talked about high school students graduating into an environment that requires high speed broadband to compete on a global scale.

Dr. Clifford Dasco, of South Thomaston, spoke about operating augmented telehealth service for those who live on islands and in rural areas. Telehealth is very convenient for the elderly, mobility impaired and in rural areas, he said. Higher internet speeds are needed, but many people cannot afford commercial internet, he said.