Thursday, April 24, 2014
Despite the task forces, the grants and the lawsuits, Maine still ranks 49th among the 50 states for its quality and availability of broadband Internet service, according to analysts. Only Montana has less capacity to offer education, medical assistance, commerce and economic development via the Web, they said.
The Maine Technology Users Group, an organization of operators and large users of broadband digital infrastructure, has scheduled a conference for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday at South Portland City Hall to assess the state of high-speed Internet access in the state and what industry believes are the prospects for the future.
The reasons for Maine’s poor broadband infrastructure are well known, including the state’s vast rural areas, a lack of tax incentives for network improvement, the aging population and inadequate understanding of the benefits of high-speed Internet access, state officials said.
Government advocates for improvements to Maine’s broadband digital communications said relatively poor access to the Internet is an impediment to creating jobs and boosting the state’s economy. Maine lacks many of the tax breaks and subsidies that other states offer for network improvements in areas where market forces alone don’t justify the required investment, they said.
“There should be some kind of incentive program and funding available,” said David Maxwell, program director of the ConnectME Authority, a state entity whose job is to ensure that all Mainers have access to broadband Internet service. “There aren’t really incentive programs other than the ConnectME grant program.”
So far, ConnectME has offered eight rounds of grant funding to Internet service providers, with an average of about $1 million in each round, Maxwell said. Yet the program has not improved Maine’s standing relative to other states in the speed and availability of Internet access.
A recent study by Gizmodo, an online technology news site, showed that Mainers are on the losing side of a digital divide between Americans with access to the fastest Internet service and those without broadband.
The vast majority of Maine counties offer top download speeds of only 7.3 to 10.9 megabits per second, about 40 percent to 60 percent below the national average of 18.2, Gizmodo found.
York, Cumberland and Lincoln counties do somewhat better, with high-speed Internet speeds of 10.9 to 14.6 megabits per second – still 20 percent to 40 percent slower than the U.S. average, it found.
By comparison, broadband speeds in Boston range from 21.8 to 25.5 megabits per second, about 20 percent to 40 percent faster than the national average, according to the study.
New York is best among cities in the Northeast, it found, with high-end broadband speeds of 29.1 megabits per second or more, at least 60 percent higher than the U.S. average.
Maxwell said it is widely known that Maine is the second-worst state for high-speed Internet access, in terms of average speed and availability.
One problem is the preponderance of outdated, traditional wire infrastructure that hasn’t been upgraded in decades, Maxwell said.
Another is the presence of widely dispersed rural communities that Internet service providers consider too expensive to upgrade. “It’s where structural density is so low that the providers can’t justify making the investment in broadband,” he said.
Other problems include a high percentage of older residents, who are less likely to pay for broadband service, Maxwell said, and a general lack of “digital literacy,” which is roughly defined as knowledge of how and why to use computers and the Internet.
Of the 93 percent of Maine residents and businesses that have access to high-speed Internet service, only 75 percent use it, said Phil Lindley, executive director of the ConnectME Authority.
That’s not to say that Maine officials haven’t been trying to get more residents and businesses online, Maxwell and Lindley said.
A report last month from the Governor’s Broadband Capacity Building Task Force, a state-appointed panel, offered eight specific recommendations for improving broadband communications in Maine. Among them:
• A three-year tax credit for Internet-related staff training and marketing expenditures to help move businesses to the Web.
• Improved data-competency education at all levels from elementary school to college.
• An Internet-connected device for every high school student in the state.
• Using a higher percentage of the Maine State Universal Service Fund on improvements to broadband infrastructure.
The report estimated that implementing the recommendations would add as many as 11,000 jobs and $500 million in income in Maine over the next 10 years.
“Those recommendations are spot-on,” Lindley said.
Broadband advocates in Maine also have sought to improve the state’s infrastructure through litigation, said Wayne Jortner, senior counsel in the Maine Public Advocate’s Office.
The office fought and won a recent lawsuit to push FairPoint Communications Inc. to accelerate and expand its broadband network improvements to provide access to at least 87 percent of customers by April, he said.
“In fact, the litigation did cause us to go all the way to the Maine Supreme Court, and we won there again,” Jortner said. “Now they’re on track to pretty much do what they said they would do.”
Speakers at Wednesday’s conference will include Fletcher Kittredge, CEO of the Biddeford-based telecommunications provider GWI, and Joe Bourgault, senior account manager for FairPoint Communications. The event is free and open to the public.
J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at: