There are a lot of opinions on why rural Maine is suffering – and just as many competing ideas on what to do to fix it.

But there’s one problem that everyone agrees on – that the lack of high-speed internet access is making it difficult to build a 21st-century economy there.

Mainers have been working on this problem for years, and in 2019 the state has a real chance to make headway.

Getting high-speed internet the “last mile” from an established network to an area that doesn’t have it yet is expensive and thus requires enough potential customers to make it worthwhile. In places where that calculus doesn’t work out for an internet provider, they simply don’t extend the line. It’s a problem that is present throughout the United States, not only in Maine.

Without high-speed internet, businesses can’t send, receive or work with large files of data, and in many industries that is simply a dealbreaker. Residents too, even those who simply want internet for their personal use, are unlikely to consider a place attractive if it doesn’t offer something close to top-notch internet.

Ignored by large internet companies and facing the slow disintegration of their communities, residents in some of these places began looking for alternatives.

On the verge of losing its year-round community, the town of Islesboro created its own broadband network. Down East, the towns of Baileyville and Calais formed a municipal broadband district to bring high-speed fiber to its biggest employer and the vast majority of residents. “We don’t want to fade away to nothing,” the utility’s director told the Editorial Board last year.

It’s not just rural Maine. South Portland, Sanford and Old Town-Orono have all undertaken public broadband initiatives of some type.

Models differ as to who owns the network and who operates it. But the goal is the same: fast, reliable, affordable internet to residents and businesses who can benefit.

When other communities see their neighbors completing these projects, they want to take one on as well – at a recent Portland Press Herald Business Breakfast Forum on broadband, the panelists called such municipal projects “contagious.”

But broadband expansion requires startup costs, and while the ConnectME Authority has grants for that purpose, the group only gives out about $750,000 per year – a small fraction of what is necessary to connect all of Maine to high-speed internet.

The Legislature took a positive step earlier this month by passing L.D. 1192, which was signed into law May 20 by Gov. Mills. It exempts municipalities from fees charged when attaching internet equipment to utility poles, as long as they are doing so to bring high-speed internet to underserved or unserved areas. The fees can make up one-third to one-half of the cost of a network.

Lawmakers are also considering two bond issues that would provide $120 million for broadband expansion, which would help municipalities and others bring service to areas where private investment hasn’t shown up by itself.

Slow internet is holding Maine back – that much everyone agrees on. Both Democrats and Republicans say so, as did each of the four candidates for governor in last year’s election. Now is the time to turn those words into action.

 


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