Last year, we learned that Maine was ranked next to last among the states in Internet availability and speeds. That finding came after years of study and effort to improve our Internet service, including substantial investments by the federal government in something called the “Three Ring Binder.”

The reasons for that aren’t complicated. We’re a big rural state with a population the size of San Diego. If you were a private company building networks, and you could choose between stringing fiber in San Diego or all of Maine, where we you put your money? Naturally, you’d put it where the costs are low and the profits are high.

It’s estimated that building a world-class Internet system throughout Maine could cost over $2 billion. Private companies can’t make a profit doing that, and unlike phone and electricity companies, they aren’t required to do so.

That is a huge problem for Maine. Just as the 20th century required adequate roads, electricity and phone service, today it’s impossible to sustain and grow an economy that is full of small pipes and sluggish speeds.

The competition for tomorrow’s jobs won’t be to attract companies here. It will be to attract people with talent and resources. Without an advanced Internet infrastructure, Maine companies can’t compete, new companies can’t grow, highly skilled managers and workers won’t relocate here, and talented young people will leave.

Building a 21st-century Internet infrastructure isn’t going to happen by waiting for the private sector to run out of more profitable places to build. It’s going to happen because we committed ourselves to doing it, and made the investments required to get the job done.

So how does a small state with limited market appeal and resources get the kind of Internet system we need to jump-start the next economy? We could start by looking at how we’ve built the critical infrastructures of the past – in rail, highways, electricity and telephones.

In each of those cases, a robust public-private partnership enabled us to not only build the infrastructure of the day, but also to ensure that it reached every corner of the state. The private sector couldn’t do it alone. Neither could government.

To build a rail system that crisscrossed the state, the public provided land and other incentives. When private companies were happy to electrify dense cities but not rural areas, government invested in power generation or guaranteed profits to companies as long as they extended service into rural areas too. It did something similar with basic phone service.

The Internet has been largely built by the private sector, and we can now see the limitations of a private-only system that has to be profitable wherever it builds: Small towns and rural areas don’t get much and won’t in the foreseeable future.

We’re at the threshold of a new economic era. Call it the age of connection. It’s well-suited to Maine, if we can position ourselves to seize the opportunities in front of us. That’s because it allows people to work where they live rather than have to live where they work.

That is freeing millions of people to live in places like Maine and to work remotely. The good news is that people want to live in Maine. Building high-speed networks throughout the state will allow them to do that.

The real problem we have now isn’t so much about finding a way to fund a new Internet backbone in Maine. It’s politics. We’ve gotten into such hysteria about government and how bad it is that we can’t get anything done at the federal level and almost nothing at the state level. Anything big and ambitious and looking to the future is off the table.

Too many people want the government out of everything except defense, without appreciating the consequences for the economy. While people across the globe are working in tandem with their governments on infrastructure, we’re bickering about small things and small ideas.

In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower promoted a vision to build an interstate highway system in America. It required a partnership between the federal and state governments, the private sector, taxpayers and drivers, all working together. It had bipartisan support, and it produced an interstate highway system in every part of the country.

We need to find that same resolve and creativity to build out the Internet highway system today. If we’re too timid or too slow about investing in the future, whatever we do will be obsolete before it’s done.

We have to think big and act big.

Alan Caron is a partner in the strategic consulting firm of Caron and Egan. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]