Maine communities need state's help to improve broadband access

Jan 02, 2020

Vienna residents voted in October to join five other Central Maine towns in the latest coalition seeking to bring high-speed internet to an underserved area of the state.

Internet providers have largely ignored these communities, so they are banding together — in Central Maine, Down East and in island communities, among other places — to see what they can do on their own.

They’re doing it in more populated places, too, to make sure they have the access to the affordable, reliable high-speed internet that they need.

Most of them are planning on using funding from state grants. But once these towns figure out what they’ve got to do in regard to high-speed internet — so important for residents’ health and way of life, and for businesses’ ability to do business — they’ll need help doing it.

One source of help is the state, which has funded the planning grants through the ConnectME initiative. The program has also funded the next step — infrastructure — but the state needs more money to meet demand in Maine, one of the most rural states and, not coincidentally, one with some of the slowest internet speeds.

The Legislature failed this year to put a bond funding broadband improvements on the November ballot after it was held up by Republicans.

Speaking recently to the Editorial Board, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he wants get the money for broadband improvements through the forecasted budget surplus to avoid another showdown over a bond proposal. Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, has a proposal that would target $15 million toward communities unserved and underserved by high-speed internet.

The Legislature earlier this year passed a law that exempts municipalities from certain utility fees related to broadband expansion, significantly lowering the cost of high-speed internet projects.

And seeing just how important high-speed internet is to attracting and retaining residents and businesses, communities are well on their way toward figuring out how to establish reliable, fast service.

Last year, projects in Sanford, Old Town-Orono and Down East were selected for a nationwide pilot project to evaluate the costs and benefits of placing high-speed smart fiber on utility poles.

When 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a member of the House Task Force on Rural Broadband, toured central Maine in June, he heard about the importance of projects in Oakland and China. He said he is working on a bill that would help businesses in rural areas connect to existing broadband networks they don’t yet have access to.

Federal help would be appropriate, and appreciated. But Maine, where roughly 200,000 residents don’t have access to adequate internet service, including at least 20,000 who have no access at all, needs to help itself, too.

Maine communities are fighting so hard for the tools they need for a prosperous future. The Legislature should not go home next session without finding a way to help them.

Reprinted from the Portland Press Herald, with permission.

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