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Jul 9, 2023

Internet training can help make broadband connections a reality

Maine recently got official word that it will receive $272 million in federal funding to build more internet connectivity in the state. The funding, which is part of the bipartisan infrastructure law passed by Congress in 2021, is significantly more than the state expected to receive.

This is needed and important work. But for many people a physical connection to the internet doesn’t eliminate the barriers that keep them from going online.

Impediments such as cost, a computer or phone, and fear can prevent people from going online, where more and more of our commerce and daily interactions occur.

To overcome these barriers, Maine is finalizing a digital equity plan. But, more important, it is partnering with — and funding — regional groups identifying and working to remove the hurdles preventing Mainers from benefiting from the state’s ongoing expansion of broadband services.

In a survey conducted by the Maine Connectivity Authority, 93 percent of those who responded said they were concerned about internet safety, especially for older adults and children. With frequent reports and congressional hearings about scams targeting older Americans, such concerns are understandable. Others reported trouble with their devices, such as computers and phones that were too old to quickly and reliably connect to the internet or that needed updates.

Cost is also an issue with nearly half of survey respondents saying they had some difficulty paying for internet services. Only about half the Mainers who qualify for the Affordable Connectivity Program actually participate in the program, which offers financial assistance to qualified people to buy computers and internet services.

Thirteen regional and tribal broadband partners are working to remove these barriers.

One example is Somerset Economic Development, which received more than $200,000 from the Maine Connectivity Authority last year.

The Somerset Broadband Coalition has launched numerous initiatives to help the county’s residents connect to increase and improve internet usage. On affordability, the group is working to increase awareness of the assistance offered by the Affordable Connectivity Program, and encouraging Congress to continue funding for the program.

To increase the availability of devices that can connect to the internet, the group has partnered with numerous entities to make computers, laptops and tablets available at schools, libraries, public health, recovery and veterans centers, and the county jail.

To boost digital skills and safe internet usage, the Somerset group is offering free training in a variety of settings to target specific groups. For example, sessions will be held at the American Legion halls for veterans, at recovery residences for those overcoming addiction, at the county jail for those who have been incarcerated, and at local libraries for families and seniors. The trainings, which range from basic skills, to Word and Excel, to website design, are also available online.

“To accomplish our goal of economic and societal prosperity, we must provide the necessary digital access, tools, and training for those members of our communities who are unconnected and struggling to be productive, healthy, contributing members of society,” Liz Caruso, the broadband director for Somerset Economic Development Corp., said during a press conference announcing the federal funding for broadband in Maine. “In doing so we will empower them to prosper — both in their communities and region, as well as nationally and globally.”

Making broadband connections available to all businesses, schools and homes in Maine is essential work. As is the next step of helping Mainers connect to that internet service. Somerset County and other broadband partners offer innovative models for this work.

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