Expanding access to high-speed internet

By Sen. Erin Herbig | Mar 07, 2019

From advancements in technology to changes in trade, today’s economy presents us with challenges, particularly in rural Maine. Too many Mainers and too many small Maine towns have been left behind. That is unacceptable.

One of the most significant barriers to success in Waldo County and most of rural Maine is lack of access to reliable high-speed internet, which creates an incredible barrier to education, business growth and economic activity in our community and those like ours across the state.

Just like electricity or roads, high-speed internet is a utility that is crucial to accessing markets and participating in today’s economy.

As you know, it is not uncommon to see kids parked outside a town library or high school at 9 or 10 p.m., trying to complete homework or a college application. They are there because it is the only place they can connect to the internet. I am not OK with that.

Nor is it uncommon for a farmer to come in from the fields once the sun sets only to have to wait several hours until 11 p.m. or midnight to send invoices to customers. They cannot send invoices earlier because a slow internet speed prevents them from doing so. I am not OK with that, either.

Business owners consider leaving our communities because slow internet connections make it hard for them to compete in the 21st century. Houses linger on the market because they are not connected to the internet and potential buyers need the ability to telecommute.

And when a group of young families in Frankfort forms a group to organize for access to high-speed internet — hoping to remain in their home town and encourage others to do the same — there are virtually no resources to support their work.

Unless you experience it every day, this problem might be hard to understand. But I do understand. At my home in Belfast, I do not have access to high-speed internet. My family uses a cellular hot spot to conduct work from home and do homework. It is our only option.

Depending on how much data we use in a month, I sometimes cannot open a Google Doc or email a photo because my connection is too slow. At those times, I, too, go to a library, school or café to do my job, just like thousands of other Mainers in this same situation.

This legislative session, I’ve submitted a bill, LD 354, “An Act to Authorize a General Fund Bond Issue to Encourage the Provision of Reliable High-speed Internet in Rural Underserved Areas of Maine.” The bill proposes a bond to expand high-speed internet access. If passed by the Legislature, signed by Gov. Janet Mills and approved by voters, the bond would disburse $20 million to the ConnectME Authority to increase access to reliable high-speed internet in rural and underserved areas.

The ConnectME Authority is a state agency that is focused on achieving universal access to high-speed internet for Maine families and businesses. It maps where reliable high-speed internet exists in our state and where it does not, supports internet infrastructure across the state and provides education about the benefits of internet access. The authority is our best vehicle to expand internet access, and my bill will allow ConnectME to broaden its efforts dramatically.

This year, we have a unique opportunity to tackle internet access. Gov. Mills is making internet access a priority, tapping the director of ConnectME, Heather Johnson, to lead the Department of Economic and Community Development. Since I chair the Legislature’s Committee on Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business, Johnson and I will work closely together.

Both of us feel strongly that high-speed internet is crucial for rural communities to thrive, so I’m hopeful that together, the Legislature and the Mills administration will be able to make progress on this critical issue.

There’s also good news about internet access at the federal level. Last year, Congress asked the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to maintain a national database of internet availability, called the National Broadband Map. The map is a searchable, public database of over 25 million records about where there is and is not internet access across the country. Last week, Johnson announced that ConnectME will be one of eight partner states to broaden and update the map. This will provide an invaluable tool to assess where we need to focus our resources.

It is time for the state to invest in rural Maine’s economic future, and access to reliable high-speed internet is arguably the most important aspect of that investment. It is my hope that this session we will focus on empowering rural communities to build independent, long-lasting infrastructure that will bring back some of the Maine families we have lost.

High-speed internet access is a fundamental part of that infrastructure.

Sen. Erin Herbig is serving her first term in the Maine Senate, representing the 26 municipalities of Waldo County. She lives in Belfast with her husband, Joseph Baiungo, and their two children.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.