Paying taxes, applying for jobs, researching term papers: Modern life requires high-speed internet, but in much of Maine, those connections are only in one of the hundreds of local schools or libraries that are part of a statewide network. But that system’s revenue stream has been steadily drying up, making it imperative that lawmakers in Augusta reach an agreement on a proposal to maintain this vital service.

The Maine School and Library Network coordinates broadband access for around 950 institutions across the state, signing contracts with providers at rates lower than any one school or library could afford on its own. The federal government covers 60 percent of the cost of the connection, and the network pays for the other 40 percent, with revenues from a fee on in-state phone calls.

That worked in the 1990s, when the network was launched. Since then, though, Mainers have increasingly chosen to forgo voice calls and communicate via text message. Revenues from in-state calls have dropped from around $4 million as recently as 2011 to less than $3 million last year, Maine Public Radio’s Mal Leary recently reported.

Schools and libraries have started getting local funding to cover broadband costs – but if communities balk at contributing and the phone fee revenues continue to slide, then Maine could lose out on the federal broadband matching funds.

Rep. Martin Grohman, a Biddeford Democrat, has a two-pronged proposal to address the shortfall in school and library internet funding. The bill, L.D. 256, would put in place a short-term fix (a higher levy on in-state telephone calls) and require stakeholders to develop and present a long-term solution by next February.

The poor quality and uneven availability of broadband in Maine have landed us near the bottom of state internet access rankings. We haven’t used the approach that’s worked in North Dakota: There, small telecoms have joined forces to get federal grants, and the state now has the highest percentage of residents with ultra-high-speed home and business internet connections. And Maine doesn’t offer the tax breaks and subsidies that have brought about network improvements in other states where the population is otherwise too spread out to be attractive to large, corporate internet service providers.

Granted, President Trump has promised public works investment, and Congress wants it, too, but these decisions are months down the road at best. Grohman’s proposal, on the other hand, is something that Maine lawmakers can pursue now – and if they have the best interests of their constituents in mind, they will.

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