NEW GLOUCESTER — Even people who are most concerned about the state of broadband internet access in Maine agree that high-speed access for our state’s schools and libraries is a bright spot, thanks to the Maine School and Library Network.

In fact, a 2015 study by the nonprofit advocacy group EducationSuperHighway ranked Maine fifth in the nation in providing broadband access to schools, with 97 percent meeting the Federal Communications Commission recommendation of 100 kilobits per second of data transfer per student.

We agree with the Feb. 15 Portland Press Herald editorial (“Maine should go to bat for rural internet funding“) and with many state policymakers: We need to strengthen and stabilize funding for the Maine School and Library Network, which is especially vital in many of Maine’s underserved rural communities.

However, lawmakers should seek to accomplish that goal through a broad-based funding solution and avoid disproportionately burdening Maine’s over-65 population, many of whom are on fixed incomes.

The Maine School and Library Network was established in 1995, when the Maine Public Utilities Commission found that Nynex had overcharged consumers, and the telecom giant promised to build high-speed connectivity to every school in Maine with the excess earnings.

To cover the network’s $9 million annual operating cost, the Maine Legislature established the Maine Telecommunications Education Assistance Fund in 1999. This was funded through an assessment on services that nearly everyone was using at the time: intrastate and interstate landline and wireless telephone service.

Let’s look at what has transpired since then.

 The proportion of homes with landline phones has declined from nearly 100 percent in 1999 to an estimated less than 50 percent in 2016.

 Consumers became much more inclined to use text messaging or social networks than to make phone calls. From 2005 to 2011, text messages went from 5 percent of total mobile communication to over 50 percent. However, communications by text are not assessed and do not contribute to supporting the Maine School and Library Network, so the shift in communication preferences has put considerable stress on funding.

 Broadband internet usage has grown significantly. In 2000, only 1 percent of adults in the U.S. used a home broadband connection. Today, that number has increased to 73 percent. So, while the Maine Telecommunications Education Assistance Fund is used to bring broadband service to schools, broadband subscribers are not paying any portion of the cost.

Eighteen years ago, state policymakers created a broad-based funding mechanism (telephone calls) to support the important public good of having our schools and libraries connected to accessible high-speed internet service. Today, however, the number of people communicating by telephone calls has dropped dramatically.

The initial funding model for the Maine School and Library Network was successful because it was broad-based, applying to services everyone used. As we look at solutions today, we should take a similar approach. To that end, we should keep a few other facts in mind.

 Mainers 65 and older are 35 percent less likely to have a broadband connection.

n Those over 65 are 75 percent less likely to use text messaging on a regular basis.

 Those 65 and over are also seven times more likely to still have a landline at home.

Looking at those numbers, it’s easy to see how the 18-year-old Maine Telecommunications Education Assistance Fund model has shifted from a broad-based system to a narrow one that puts a disproportionate burden on the elderly. Trying to stabilize funding by increasing surcharges on only telephone calls will accelerate the decline of voice service and increasingly place the cost of the statewide school and library network on Maine’s elderly, many of whom are on fixed incomes and can least afford it.

Clearly, we need to stabilize the Maine Telecommunications Education Assistance Fund and preserve broadband service for our schools and libraries. We believe that policymakers can stabilize funding by including revenue from today’s broadly used communications technology, including text messaging and broadband service.

We appreciate the work legislators are doing to find a way to stabilize and strengthen the Maine School and Library Network and look forward to working with state Rep. Martin Grohman and others in the Maine House and Senate and the LePage administration to find a constructive solution.

In the end, any bill, including L.D. 256, must broaden the base of funding sources and avoid putting the burden disproportionately on Maine’s aging population.

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