Federal funding for broadband can help bridge internet gap

Mar 25, 2021

The 20th century came late to rural America.

Decades after American cities had been wired for electricity, farm wives pumped water from their wells by hand and hauled it to their kitchens. They chopped wood to heat their homes and cook. They canned fruits and vegetables in season because they had no refrigeration to store food.

There was also no radio to listen to. No machines to make clothes. No electric light to read by.

That changed in the 1930s with the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the start of the New Deal. The federal government invested in power generation, broke up utility monopolies and used low-interest loans to start nonprofit cooperatives that were able to bring electricity to the customers that the electric companies found too expensive to serve.

And it worked. Fewer than 10% of American farms had electricity in 1930. By 1960, nearly 100 percent of them did.

That’s the kind of effort that is needed now to bridge another technological divide. This time, it’s high-speed internet access that rural areas have been waiting for, and there are signs that help is on the way.

Tucked into the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden this month was $10 billion for rural broadband, which was advocated for by Maine Sen. Angus King. At least $100 million of that is expected to be headed for Maine, giving the state a chance to make a dent in a tough problem.

(How this could happen will be the subject of a Policy Matters panel discussion on pressherald.com at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.)

As the COVID pandemic revealed, high-speed internet access is as basic a service for modern life as electricity was a century ago.

Students without broadband at home had to be driven miles to find Wi-Fi hotspots where they could participate in classes.

Older adults exposed themselves to COVID for routine doctor visits, or went without care, because they couldn’t access telemedicine services at home.

Individuals and businesses were denied the economic benefits of e-commerce and telecommuting that were available in places with high-speed internet.

Mainers can apply for jobs online, pay their taxes, renew a driver’s license or order their groceries — if they can get online.

The impediments are the same as they were with electricity in the last century. For-profit companies cannot make enough money to cover their costs by serving people in sparsely populated places.

Maine’s economically vulnerable rural areas are the most likely to be underserved. Thousands of Maine households have no internet access, and many more have inadequate service.

But it’s not just a rural issue. There is little competition among providers and prices are high. Even in more populated parts of the state, many Mainers can’t afford service and they are also getting left behind.

Investing in broadband has been the consistent advice of every economic development study and long-range plan. It was even part of the Maine Climate Council’s recommendations, because internet access reduces vehicle trips and greenhouse-gas emissions.

Another thing COVID exposed was the desirability of Maine’s quality of life to people who can work anywhere they can connect to the internet. That’s behind Maine’s hot real estate market, but it’s not evenly distributed.

The new money alone is not enough to solve the complex technical problems that have prevented broadband from reaching every corner of the state.

As King said in a letter co-authored with three senators, various federal government agencies do not agree on what constitutes “high-speed,” and some departments set the standard far too low to meet the needs of today.

There is also an issue with the Federal Communications Commission’s service maps, which are widely acknowledged to be inaccurate.

And there will be much work to be done by towns, cities and regional alliances working with internet service providers to bring the internet to every place that has electricity.

The federal broadband funding gives us the chance to launch a New Deal-size effort. It’s time for the 21st century to reach the whole state of Maine.

Reprinted from The Portland Press Herald.

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