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Penobscot Bay Press
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News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, May 18, 2023
Broadband celebration draws a crowd
Peninsula residents gather for pizza and speeches

Broadband celebration

Event host and local broadband champion Abbie McMillen is flanked by Brooksville selectman Hal Snow, left, and Brooksville resident Peter Gill.

Photo by Maggie White Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Maggie White

An estimated 125 people showed up to the ‘Shine the Light + Share the Love’ broadband celebration held at the Brooksville Community Center on May 9, according to a post-event email from host Abbie McMillen.

For the two-hour event that began at 4:30 p.m., attendees came from all over the peninsula and islands to partake in Tinder Hearth pizza, enjoy cupcakes from the elementary school, and hear speeches from local and state leaders on the importance of this long-awaited moment. Peninsula Utility for Broadband founder Butler Smythe started working on getting high-speed internet to the area in 2015, and McMillen has been doggedly devoted to the cause since at least 2018.

The more formal portion of the gathering was brought to order by Brooksville’s select board chair John Gray, who offered words of welcome before turning the microphone over to Maine Connectivity Authority president Andrew Butcher.

Saying that the availability of high-speed internet in this area is important not only from a professional standpoint, but also from a personal one (his grandmother has had a cabin in Blue Hill since the 1950s, some of his immediate family reside here, and he attended his very first community meeting at the Brooksville library), Butcher cited the significance of the occasion.

“The moments that we get to collectively celebrate things happening in real time are rare,” he said, adding that being treated to “wave after wave” of Tinder Hearth pizza was akin to a “magical dream.”

Nick Battista, chief policy officer of the Island Institute, spoke about lost opportunities that have occurred due to the former lack of reliable internet, situations that will now become a thing of the past.

“We were hearing for years about how hard it was for people to run small businesses,” he said, adding that those who would have left the area or cut their visits short—including part-time residents and visiting family members who rely on internet connectivity for social and/or professional reasons—might now stay.

McMillen echoed this sentiment in a short video that was unable to be shown at the event due to a technical glitch, but that she sent afterwards, saying: “The most important thing for me personally is that my 14-year-old grandson will not balk at coming to visit.”

After Battista spoke, Sarah Davis, senior director of government affairs and wholesale strategies at Consolidated Communications, took the microphone, saying that she is not usually prone to nerves or tears, but that, as a lifelong Mainer who cares much about her state, this occasion was an exception for both. She thanked the many people on her team and on supporting affiliate teams for their hard work in making internet happen in this area.

Letters from Senators Susan Collins and Angus King were read by Kelly Cotiaux and Christina Breen, representatives from their respective offices. In her letter, Collins applauded the “tireless efforts” and the “working together” that will enable “access to a variety of services around the world.” King’s letter said that one of his top priorities was high-speed, affordable internet, something McMillen affirmed when she said that King has been “a national leader in broadband connectivity.”

Penobscot Bay Press publisher and editor Nathaniel Barrows, whose company publishes three weekly newspapers that serve the peninsula and the islands (including this one), talked about how information provided on the page and on a digital platform is the “coin of our realm.” Barrows took a moment to also remind the audience that with this privilege comes responsibility, saying that we all must “be vigilant about how we consume information in the digital realm.”

He then emphasized the integral work of volunteers in making internet availability a reality. “Volunteering is an act of love that transcends space and time,” said Barrows, who invoked the name of the party in his final words, inviting all to ‘Shine the Light + Share the Love’.

Shelley Jackson, interim head of school at George Stevens Academy, who is also an educational consultant working with international students seeking private education in the United States, spoke about how schools cannot function without reliable, fast internet because papers are often submitted and graded on line, schedules are available and updated virtually, and many textbooks now only exist in a digital format.

Smythe wrapped things up, directing people to the site, and emphasized that the important next steps are to continue to spread the word about availability and opportunity regarding high-speed internet and to encourage people to participate in digital equity classes.

Of the latter, Marci Gaglione, a digital skills instructor and volunteer outreach coordinator from the National Digital Equity Center, announced that all 42 of the current classes they offer are free and that there is something for every skill level.