The importance of high-speed internet connections has been driven home by the coronavirus pandemic, with more Mainers working from home while thousands of students finished out the school year online.

That may be one reason why voters last week backed a $15 million bond to help communities in the state that lack adequate internet service work toward providing broadband connections for residents. The referendum measure was backed by a 3-to-1 margin in Tuesday’s primary.

An advisory committee of 45 state leaders chosen by Gov. Janet Mills to help spur Maine’s economic recovery has said one of the state’s top priorities should be expanding rural broadband service. It has recommended spending an additional $65 million on broadband projects in addition to the $15 million bond.

The bond money, which will help the state leverage up to $30 million in additional private and government grants, will go a long way toward helping communities that have been working on plans to improve their internet access, said Kendra Grindle, community development officer at the Island Institute, which supported the bond issue.

“State funding can be the catalyst for other funds or the last chunk” needed for a project, Grindle said. “It can be difficult and costly, and it will be wonderful to see how far we can push this $15 million.”

Peggy Schaffer, executive director of ConnectMe, the state agency in charge of Maine’s internet expansion efforts, agrees. She said her organization has provided grants to communities to help them plan how to bring broadband services to rural parts of the state, and that the bond funding will help some put those plans into action.

Schaffer said it’s hard to measure which areas are lacking because there are different definitions of what “underserved” means. She said the best estimate is that 11 percent of residents in the state lack reliable access to high-speed internet service.

Fletcher Kittredge, the chief executive of GWI, a Biddeford-based internet service provider, said the real number could be three times higher, which drives home the importance of using the bond money to help leverage federal and other funding.

The pandemic, Kittredge said, has shown the importance of having broadband infrastructure for connecting remotely with medical care providers – commonly referred to as telehealth – working from home and promoting distance learning. That makes support for expanding access to broadband connections an issue that cuts across partisan lines, he said.

It also may lead to further federal aid, Kittredge said, noting that electric and telephone service for rural Americans was spurred by federal dollars and regulations that required utilities to provide universal service. The pandemic may provide some impetus for the same push for widespread broadband coverage, he said.

Maine has “tiny little pockets (without service) all over the place,” rather than broad swaths of the state without connections, according to Kittredge. Besides providing better connections for more Mainers, he said, an expansion of service could help rural economic development by convincing city dwellers that they could relocate to Maine and maintain their jobs with reliable high-speed internet connections.

Kittredge said he echoes U.S. Sen. Angus King’s vision of “being able to work where you live, rather than live where you work.”

Schaffer said Maine businesses have shown flexibility in working to expand internet connections. Some have agreed to pursue the infrastructure work of laying fiber-optic cable to parts of the state that lack adequate service, while others have provided the internet connections to homes and businesses once those lines were in place.

Kittredge said his company has been performing both of those functions for years, and that other Maine companies have developed a reputation for their ability to do likewise that has attracted work from other states.

“We’re starting to build a real expertise in these things,” he said, which is another argument for government investment in the expansion of broadband service envisioned in the bond measure.

“This has the potential to be good for Maine in the long run” beyond the goal of providing service to more Mainers, he said.

But that expansion of service to more Mainers is what attracted the Island Institute’s support, Grindle said. She said only a few of Maine’s 15 islands with year-round residents have high-speed internet service, and that parts of the coast aren’t covered, either.

She said there will be plenty of communities eager to develop broadband plans and contact ConnectME to see if funding is available once the bond money starts flowing, probably early next year.

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