Ten months of remote learning, work and doctor’s appointments have shown the internet to be not only a literal lifesaver, but so intertwined with how we conduct our daily lives that it is nearly indispensable, for both residential and business use.

Now it’s time to find out which areas need it most.

We’ve known for a while now that too much of Maine suffers from slow or nonexistent internet access. Our dispersed population makes extending high-speed internet to every corner of Maine a bad investment for private providers. Areas with too few potential customers just don’t get any attention.

It will take a significant investment to reach all underserved areas, and Maine should make that investment without a second thought. Whether to attract new businesses and residents, or support the ones already there, it couldn’t be more worth it.

And we know in general where the internet access is at its worst. Local leaders in many areas throughout the state have worked in recent  years to understand where their shortfalls are. Some have already taken action to bring broadband to their communities through creative partnerships. Others have projects that are just waiting for funding.

But to make sure Maine understands exactly what it is facing when it comes to internet access, more information is needed. That’s where the Maine Broadband Coalition comes in.

At mainebroadbandcoalition.org, Mainers can quickly test the internet speed at their location, helping the group pinpoint the geographic areas where the internet is either too slow or not accessible at all.

The Federal Communications Commission assesses internet speed, but only by census block, which are large in rural areas. In many parts of Maine, just because the internet is fast in one part of the census block doesn’t necessarily mean it’s fast throughout. In fact, a coalition project in western Maine showed wide variations of speeds within towns.

The more people who take part in the Maine Broadband Coalition project, the more the state will understand the challenge ahead of it. The information can be added to the data already collected to guide internet build-out projects.

State funding can then be leveraged with other sources to support the whole process, from identifying need to putting up wire. Gov. Mills included $1.8 million in her supplemental budget for that purpose, and voters last year approved an additional $15 million.

There should be plenty of willing participants for the state study. A recent national study estimated that 180,000 Mainers have no internet or a low-speed connection. About 20% of students here have no computer or broadband access.

If it wasn’t before, it’s clear now that those students can’t fully participate in their education without adequate internet access.

Businesses can’t reach their full potential without it, either, and without it areas of Maine will have trouble attracting new residents.

2020 was the year when the need for high-speed internet became indisputable. 2021 should be the year Maine becomes determined to make universal access a reality.

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