A corporate giant’s appearance in the little town of Leeds last week tells us a lot about why so many Mainers don’t have access to reliable and affordable internet service.

Leeds officials were proposing the creation of a town-run broadband network that would reach all of the town’s residents, including the 330 households that Spectrum, the town’s sole internet provider, will not serve.

In the weeks leading up to a special town meeting, an organization plastered residents’ houses with slick campaign materials calling the proposal a government boondoggle that would lead to higher taxes and worse service. Their activism brought out a record crowd for a Leeds town meeting last week, including many who were ineligible to vote because they were not residents.

Maine Public reporter Steve Mistler found that the group that sent out the campaign material, Maine Civic Action, fights municipal broadband proposals around the state, and Spectrum’s corporate parent, Charter Communications, acknowledged that it is a financial backer of Maine Civic Action’s parent organization, the right-leaning Maine Policy Institute think tank.

Why would a big corporation care about a small municipal network, especially one that aims to serve customers who Spectrum can’t be bothered serving itself?

Maine may be on the verge of a broadband transformation.

After a 15-year period where the state spent about $1 million in public funds looking for the gaps in our high-speed internet system, the state is finally in a position to attack the problem, with about $250 million in mostly federal funds to get the job done.

The goal is to extend high-speed internet service to every corner of the state at an affordable price, so businesses, remote workers, students, health care providers and others can get online and not be left behind.

We are already seeing municipalities and groups of municipalities looking to step in and serve the people who have been ignored by existing providers. And we are already seeing opposition to these efforts by current providers, which are not interested in facing any competition.

Cable companies are not actual monopolies, but they can act like them. In most Maine communities, their only competition is slower DSL service that uses phone lines, but despite having the benefits of a near monopoly cable providers have no obligation to serve every customer, as would a landline phone company or an electric utility.

This is a legacy of cable companies’ original business model – providing home entertainment. But high-speed internet is not an amusement.

As we saw during the COVID pandemic, access was essential for public school students when schools were shut down. Households with broadband could work remotely or consult with health care providers using telemedicine. People saw the limits of a free-market system for deciding who can buy these services and who can be left out in the cold.

The Legislature created a new state agency this year, the Maine Connectivity Authority, which will help direct the historic federal investment in the state. It will work with a variety of local groups looking for the best way to serve people.

There will probably still be a place for providers like Spectrum, but it will have to compete with other models, including municipal systems.

And what about Leeds? Despite the campaigning by Spectrum, the town meeting approved a $2.2 million bond to build its own internet network.


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