It’s often said that in the 21st century, people can work anywhere. Commerce is no longer limited by geography, and that can be a boon for Maine. Where once it was considered the literal end of the highway, the state can now attract businesses, entrepreneurs and freelancers on the strength of its quality of life alone.

Yet Maine has moved quickly to the far end of the virtual highway as well, with Internet speeds fast enough to stream Netflix but not much more. It’s particularly bad in rural communities, where the lack of access to true high-speed Internet represents an “intellectual trade deficit,” according to the executive director of the ConnectME Authority, which oversees the state’s broadband service.

The authority’s board voted unanimously last week to raise Maine’s broadband standard, making most of the state eligible for grants to enhance Internet service. The authority’s budget last year was just $700,000, however, and much more is needed to build the infrastructure demanded by today’s economy.

NEW STANDARD FOR UPLOADS, TOO

The previous standard – access to a download speed of 1.5 megabits per second – set the bar low. Maine offers some of the slowest broadband speeds in the United States, and is barely ahead of countries such as Moldova and Curacao, yet 95 percent of the state still cleared that bar.

The new standard, with a download speed of 10 megabits per second, is met by just 20 percent of Maine, a truer reflection of the state’s broadband capabilities. Better yet, the authority broadened the standard to include upload speeds as well.

That’s important. Fast download speeds allow consumers to stream the latest television shows in high definition. But it’s the upload speed that matters for video conferencing, cloud computing and other features necessary for small and home-based businesses to work remotely.

Both download and upload speeds will have to get faster for Maine to compete, and the state has to think big.

FUNDING KEY, BUT IN SHORT SUPPLY

The new standard helps by putting roughly 80 percent of Maine households in areas “unserved” by broadband, qualifying those areas for grants from the ConnectME Authority. But of the 35 projects that sought funding last year, only eight received money.

The funding gap should be addressed by the Legislature, where a slew of bills related to broadband access, including at least two seeking bond funding for high-speed Internet infrastructure, will be debated this session.

Any efforts will build upon the “Three-Ring Binder,” an 1,100-mile high-speed fiber network winding from Fort Kent to Kittery. The network acts as a spine that brings world-class Internet capacity to most of Maine, if consumers can only access it. In many cases, however, it doesn’t make financial sense for service providers to make those “last-mile” connections for a relatively few customers.

In the place of private financing, innovative strategies are surfacing. Both Rockport and South Portland, two very different communities in different parts of the state, are installing fiber-optic networks with speeds 100 times faster than what is otherwise available, at an affordable cost to both taxpayers and consumers.

There’s no reason why similar projects cannot occur elsewhere in the state, or why communities in more rural areas can’t work together to bring high-speed Internet where the private sector hasn’t.

Those are the kinds of projects the state should be supporting, so that as the world shrinks, Maine doesn’t get even farther away.