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As with many other services and policy discussions, the COVID-19 pandemic has both emphasized and magnified the need to expand broadband access. That may sound trite, but it’s true.
Internet connectivity has come to be a requirement in so many aspects of life: in business, in education, in health care, in growing the economy. While some Maine communities are well-served or are making strides to improve internet access, other parts of our rural state are being left behind.
With this backdrop, the BDN has now kicked off a virtual broadband event series, sponsored by the Rockland-based Island Institute and Maine internet service provider GWI, bringing together a host of policy experts, business leaders and educators to discuss internet connectivity in the state.
That series began with a Feb. 18 event, also sponsored by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, about the $15 million broadband bond passed by Maine voters in 2020 and what’s next for Maine. Editorial Page Editor Susan Young hosted that event, and started things off by asking Island Institute Senior Policy Officer Nick Battista to first explain what broadband is exactly, and to discuss why it is taking so long to build the system that Maine needs.
“What is broadband? Broadband is high-speed internet access that lets you do things like this [meeting],” said Battista, who also chairs the board of the ConnectMaine Authority, which is tasked with facilitating broadband availability throughout the state. “We know that over the last probably decade or so, internet has shifted from being a luxury and something that’s nice to have, to something much more essential. It’s essential for government functions, it’s essential for meeting people like this, it’s been essential in our daily lives through the current pandemic.”
Battista also explained that while the federal government does provide subsidies to large companies in order to provide broadband access, Mainers have still been left behind. Noting that broadband is “place-based infrastructure” that goes street by street on utility poles, he stressed that private companies deciding to invest in providing internet service somewhere is dependent on those companies being able to see a return in that particular area.
In the absence of more cohesive federal and state leadership, communities have increasingly come to the realization that local action is needed.
Charlie Woodworth, executive director of the Greater Franklin Development Council, also participated in the Feb. 18 event. He outlined why and how the Franklin County Broadband Initiative is working to build high-speed internet access in that region.
“The Franklin County demographics are telling. We have a shrinking and aging population,” Woodworth explained. “So as the economic and community development office for our region, we’re spearheading our broadband effort on a county-wide basis, including all communities. If one town gets it, that’s good, but it’s not good enough.”
As comments from both Woodworth and AARP Maine Director of Outreach Japhet Els, another event speaker, pointed to Thursday, broadband access is an issue that cuts across multiple problems facing Maine right now. Internet access simultaneously affects how people age in America’s oldest state and how the state retains and attracts young people to live and work here.
“We see broadband as the first issue, and I think COVID-19 has made that very clear,” Els said. “Whether you’re an educator, whether you’re in health care or a patient, or whether you’re just somebody who stays connected to your community, now having that broadband connection is a requirement.”
Woodworth said that the Franklin County broadband effort began as a grassroots realization among citizen leaders about shared challenges.
This type of community-led action is encouraging and necessary in many parts of Maine. But it can’t be a stand-in or replacement for more sustained leadership — and investment — at the state and federal levels.
“We have a system that is leading us toward a relatively fractured approach to building out broadband,” Battista said. “The Connect Maine Authority has an annual budget of $2-3 million a year. That’s not enough to solve this problem. The $15 million bond that just passed was the first time the state has put any kind of serious money into broadband infrastructure ever.”
“There are a lot of communities that are ready. They’ve been waiting,” Kendra Jo Grindle, senior community development officer at the Island Institute, said during the event. “And this bond that just passed last year was kind of the first time we saw the state really recognize a larger amount of money needed at the state level to leverage funds, to leverage these projects and to see them through.”
Thursday was the first of four scheduled br oad band events in the BDN’s virtual series. We hope readers will join us for the next conversation on Wednesday that will focus on data privacy, security and accessibility.