Oct 14, 2023
Congress can’t leave Mainers in the digital darkness
Myles Smith is the executive director of the Maine Broadband Coalition. The coalition includes regional economic development authorities, health and education providers, community leaders, and small- and medium-sized Internet Service Providers.
It’s pretty close to impossible to get things done today without the internet. Without it, everything from paying bills to medical appointments to kids’ homework gets harder. These problems are even worse in rural Maine, where people may be far removed from the things they need, and for anyone who struggles to get around for one reason or another.
Polling by the Pew Research Center in the weeks after the pandemic began found most Americans believed at-home internet to be absolutely essential. This becomes more true each year. But almost 30 percent of Americans polled struggle to afford to pay for the internet. Prices are highest in rural areas like most of Maine, where the cost to deploy and maintain infrastructure is high and competition is low.
Congress took on these problems in Maine and elsewhere by creating the Affordable Connectivity Program in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law. All four members of Maine’s delegation supported the law. But, the one-time only funding for it has just about run out, so Congress needs to reauthorize funding for it. Despite support in both parties in Congress, it seems possible we’ll leave hundreds of thousands of Mainers in the dark.
Over 90,000 Mainers benefit from this program. I have a family member who benefits, a retired Maine senior who uses telemedicine to manage a persistent health issue. She gets better care at a lower cost, healthcare providers save time and resources by seeing more patients online, and the telehealth appointment takes all their cars off the roads. We all benefit when everyone can operate online.
Helping lower-income folks pay for their internet makes it possible to reach more Mainers with better infrastructure. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in new networks in Maine. Subsidizing some subscriptions makes it possible to reach more folks who can pay, and ensures that quality improves for everyone. This is why many of Maine’s internet providers, including those in our coalition, are working hard to get their eligible customers enrolled.
More than 230,000 more Mainers are eligible for ACP are yet to enroll. The Maine Connectivity Authority is coordinating dozens of organizations to get people signed up, but with the future funding in doubt, this is getting complicated. The process for verifying eligibility could use some improvement, and is even more burdensome for the small internet service providers, including those in our coalition. There are technical fixes to be made, for sure. Those can be fixed, and the dozens of Maine-based ISPs that participate in the program want it to continue.
But if tens of thousands of Mainers drop offline permanently, we’ll have much bigger and more expensive problems on our hands. We need Congress to fund the Affordable Connectivity Program.