Jun 16, 2023
Maine's Vision of Digital Equity
All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are currently working on digital equity plans. As they release draft plans seeking public feedback, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is sharing summaries focused on how states define their digital divides and their vision for reaching digital equity.
This month, the Maine Connectivity Authority (MCA) released the state's draft Broadband Action Plan, which provides a roadmap for Maine's progress toward digital equity moving forward. The plan envisions a Maine where everyone, especially those traditionally underserved and facing more barriers to being connected, can take full advantage of the economic, educational, health, civic, social and other benefits that reliable, affordable, high-speed broadband can provide.
Distinctly, Maine's plan is for everyone to have access to:
- Affordable, reliable internet connectivity at home;
- An affordable device that meets their needs;
- The opportunity to develop digital skills and access technical support;
- Tools and information to protect themselves and their families online; and
- Online state resources that are inclusive and accessible for all.
Here, we break down the state plan, from Maine's statewide engagement process and findings to its digital equity goals and strategic path to achieving them.
"By connecting everyone and ensuring that Mainers have the support and resources to realize the benefits of that connectivity fully, we can ensure there is a place for everyone to thrive in our economy and communities."
I. Creating the Broadband Action Plan
To create the Broadband Action Plan, the Maine Connectivity Authority (MCA)––a quasi-governmental agency funded through a combination of federal and state resources charged with achieving universal access to affordable high-speed broadband in Maine––and its partners conducted outreach and engagement activities between January and June 2023. Six stakeholder groups comprising 117 individuals, organizations, and agencies contributed to the engagement process. Additionally, three formal tribal consultations were held with the Chiefs and Vice Chiefs of the Mi’kmaq Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, and the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township.
The statewide Maine Broadband Survey, available in 12 languages, collected over 3,200 responses online and in hard copy versions. Thirteen focus groups were facilitated by MCA and hosted by organizations that serve or represent the Digital Equity Act's "covered populations." An additional 16 community meetings were held around the state to collect feedback from the general public.
Thirteen regional and tribal broadband partners supported this planning effort, convening 180 digital equity coalition partners, conducting 651 interviews, and creating a digital equity plan for each region and tribal community. MCA and its partners hosted the first-ever Digital Equity Workshop facilitated by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which brought together 100 participants in early May 2023 and concluded the engagement.
II. Understanding Digital Equity in Maine
Maine faces a perfect storm of challenges in achieving digital equity. The state's remote and rugged terrain makes it one of the most challenging and expensive places to reach with digital infrastructure. As the state with the oldest population in the nation, Maine has a significant population that did not grow up with all of the technology available today. Maine’s median household and per capita income lag behind most other states, too. And almost all Mainers live in small, rural communities with limited resources. These forces combine to shape the contours of the digital divide in Maine.
Barriers to Universal Broadband
Maine's outreach and engagement helped surface many barriers consistently faced by people and communities there. Most community members and covered populations see access to broadband as essential but find it difficult to rely on existing broadband infrastructure.
The quality of internet connections causes frustration for many Mainers, whether because of a slow connection, a lack of capacity to support all the devices and uses, or periodic outages. The Maine Broadband Survey showed that 40 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with their connection.
Internet availability and affordability are primary barriers to digital equity in Maine, especially for the state’s most vulnerable populations. Based on December 2022 data from the Federal Communications Commission, approximately 42,000 locations in Maine have no broadband connection or service of less than 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps). They account for about 6.5% of the total locations statewide. An additional 52,000 locations (8% of locations) are “unserved,” with service between 25/3 to 100/20 Mbps. A full 61%, or 393,000 locations, have service between 100/20 and 100/100 Mbps and will not be eligible for BEAD funding.
Users of all types are concerned about internet safety and have low levels of comfort in protecting themselves online. In Maine's survey, 93 percent of respondents are concerned about internet safety, focusing on effectively protecting older adults and children. In focus groups, community meetings, and interviews, Maine people named very few resources, tools or sources of information available to bolster their internet safety.
Access to devices is not always considered a barrier, with many people saying they have sufficient devices to meet their needs. However, many describe ongoing issues that could be resolved with improved device access, a newer device, or available technical support. In Maine's survey, just 5 percent of respondents visited a trusted local institution for technical support, most utilized friends, family, or coworkers for support, and more than a quarter simply gave up when they couldn’t fix their device. For many of the covered populations, the cost of the device itself is a barrier.
There is a widespread need for digital skill building, especially among older adults and other covered populations. Covered populations had less confidence in every digital skill category measured in the survey compared to other respondents. People in focus groups and community meetings desired various learning formats, including one-on-one and small groups. Further comments clarified that classes are rarely tailored to specific covered populations and often do not start at an appropriate skill level or use language that people understand.
Most people see the benefit of government resources offered online. Over 92 percent of survey respondents reported using the internet to access government resources, but most find it difficult. Many struggle to use these resources because of a lack of internet service at home or accessibility of the sites, forms, or processes, especially when viewed on a phone or not provided in the user’s first language.
Challenges Faced by Covered Populations
Maine's goal is not just to enable covered populations to survive in bridging the digital divide - but to thrive.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) estimates that 89 percent of Mainers identify as a population likely to be most impacted by the digital divide and are categorized as a covered population under the Digital Equity Act.
According to the Maine broadband survey, 8 percent of respondents in low-income households have no internet compared to 2 percent overall. An unsurprising 77 percent of respondents in low-income households find it difficult to pay for their monthly internet bill. Over 40 percent of respondents in low-income households surveyed enrolled in internet subsidy programs. Nearly 30 percent of respondents in low-income households don't have enough devices to fit their needs [compared to just 11 percent of the overall survey population]. Respondents in low-income households report feeling less confident in job searching, finding health information, and finding educational information, and 20 percent of respondents in low-income households reported that their internet search for government information did not meet their needs well.
Survey respondents in rural areas were more likely to have DSL and less likely to have cable broadband service. And 47 percent said it is somewhat or very difficult to fit the cost of their internet into their budget. Most (65 percent) are paying $70 or more for broadband service each month. While great strides have been made in broadband expansion in Maine, there are rural areas that still need broadband or are in cellular dead zones.
Veterans must access their veterans benefits online and often have a greater frequency of health and mental health visits, or a need to access specific care for veterans. These conditions result in a greater reliance on internet access, devices and skills to access health care and benefits virtually, and veterans often find these processes difficult or don’t have the devices or connection to do so. Veterans who responded to the statewide survey indicated that affordability, access to devices, and digital skills presented significant barriers to digital inclusion: 44 percent of veterans reported at least some difficulty affording monthly internet service and 9 percent of veterans don’t have enough devices in the household. Veterans report feeling less confident than other respondents in 10 of 12 digital skill areas in the survey, including job searching, finding medical or educational information, using email and social media, or using Zoom.
Racial and ethnic minority residents surveyed found it much more difficult to afford monthly internet bills compared to all survey respondents. Nearly a quarter of racial minority residents surveyed reported finding it very difficult to fit their monthly internet bill into their household’s budget compared to 11 percent of the overall population surveyed. Racial minority residents surveyed were much less likely to have enough devices to fit their needs than the survey population.
For individuals with disabilities in Maine, 27 percent surveyed found it very difficult to fit their monthly internet bill into their household budget. Individuals with disabilities are less likely to have enough devices to meet their needs compared to the overall survey population. Individuals with disabilities reported less confidence with all 12 digital skills included in Maine's survey. Only 36 percent of individuals living with disabilities reported that online public resources were very accessible.
Older adults feel less confident with all 12 digital skills in the survey, with the most significant difference in using social media and job searching. Older adults in Maine are not “digital natives” and find it difficult to find digital skills support that meets their needs or starts where they are and uses language that works for them. For older adults, digital skills training and technical support may be best provided one-on-one. Nearly half of older adults find paying for their monthly service difficult. And 8 percent have a dial-up connection, no connection at all, or don’t know where their internet connection comes from.
People with language barriers in Maine who are recent immigrants or asylum seekers are more likely to rely on a phone data plan, hotspot, and/or public wifi for access.(1) There is a significant lack of digital skills training, technical support, and ACP enrollment support in multiple languages. Very few government resources are offered in different languages or, for those with low literacy, in accessible languages. Most people Maine officials met in focus groups and community meetings noted at least some difficulty with accessing government forms or resources online. For those with language barriers, it’s more difficult.
For incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in Maine, access to devices, educational programs, and the internet may vary widely depending on space and device constraints, connectivity to the facility itself, and administration and funding decisions.(2) People in reentry and long-term recovery struggle to gain access to the internet and to afford service, often because of a lack of credit or resources and/or unstable housing. People in reentry typically do not have the device they need because of cost barriers. When people are released, phones are critical, but most don’t know how to use them. The reentry process supported by community organizations does not typically or consistently include any support for accessing devices or technical support. People in reentry and recovery are worried that using the internet could get them in trouble if they click on the wrong link, which they always feel in danger of doing. Internet safety is a significant concern related to the fear of returning to jail/prison and feeling vulnerable online.
Of the Native American population surveyed in Maine, 20 percent indicated that fitting their monthly internet bill into their household budget was very difficult, compared to 11 percent of the overall population surveyed.(3) Over a quarter of Native American individuals surveyed reported not having enough devices to meet their needs. They also have a lower price point for affordable devices. Over 20 percent of Native American individuals surveyed indicated that $250 is too expensive for a computing device. For Tribal members, ACP enrollment is a challenge: many complete ACP enrollment only to find they are not receiving the full $75 tribal benefit, but often the $30 benefit.
III. The State's Digital Equity Goals
Maine's Broadband Action Plan outlines key strategies to address the barriers to access, affordability, and adoption.
1. Create A Foundation for Digital Equity
Maine must invest in the core capacity, tools, and resources to help advance digital equity across the state. These investments must include sustaining digital equity staffing at MCA and adjusting funding programs to ensure that digital equity is used as a lens when making program decisions and prioritizing investments. The digital equity asset inventory, digital equity-focused events, coalition building, and tracking progress and impact are all important to ensure MCA sustains and grows in this work over time. The following actions serve as the basis for developing a digital equity foundation in Maine:
- Apply a digital equity lens to infrastructure and program decisions by layering additional data to the Broadband Mapping Platform.
- MCA’s Digital Equity Manager, who will work directly with partners and help lead the implementation of digital equity programs outlined in this plan.
- The Digital Equity Asset Inventory will be developed as an online resource to provide information about digital inclusion programs and resources for members of the public, digital navigators, and organizational partners.
- Coalition building, digital equity events, and ongoing monitoring and progress evaluation are all core activities under this strategy.
2. Leverage Partnerships to Reach Places & People
Maine has many organizational partners and networks that are significant assets to enable digital inclusion programs and activities. The state is intent on reaching every corner of the state geographically while focusing on people and communities who are facing more barriers to being connected. It aims to leverage the work of core digital inclusion organizations with partners serving particular regions or specific covered populations to share best practices and digital inclusion expertise, reaching more people and places. It will be important to embed and align digital inclusion activity into networks that already have relationships with covered populations. To do this, MCA will:
Directly fund partners and design and launch a competitive funding program to support digital inclusion activities that will reach a broad geography and explicitly support the covered populations. This funding will target partner networks which have existing relationships with covered populations, core digital equity partners, and regional and tribal partners;
Fund a Connectivity Hubs program from 2024 to 2026 to support education, workforce and telehealth programming and public access to the internet, devices, and digital skills; and
Support a Tribal Broadband Initiative to support connectivity and digital equity for the Tribes in Maine.
3. Focus on Affordability
Many Mainers find paying for internet service at home challenging. The state needs to focus attention on strategies that can improve affordability, particularly for the covered populations for whom this is a significant barrier. These strategies will involve supporting Affordable Connectivity Program enrollment for more eligible households, researching other local and policy solutions, and launching an apartment wifi program to better connect residents of affordable housing units across the state. MCA will:
- Continue to lead and expand enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program through the ACP4ME Campaign.
- Engage with partners to explore other policy solutions to improve affordability.
- Work with the affordable housing community to research, launch, and fund an Affordable Housing Connectivity Program.
- Provide support to Maine Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) to enable individuals with disabilities that require assistive technology to transition from analog to digital service by identifying individual locations that need access or providing ACP or other support to those individuals.
- Adjust existing infrastructure programs to 1) enable diverse technologies to increase competition and options that lower costs and 2) include requirements for funded infrastructure projects to lower consumer costs.
4. Launch Statewide Education & Information Campaigns
Some critical campaigns need to be coordinated centrally by the State, providing a structure and tools with which various partners can engage and participate. MCA will work with collaborators to design and launch statewide campaigns promoting internet safety and device refurbishment, providing practical tools and resources. The state will also leverage existing tools such as 211 to provide information about digital inclusion programs and resources and work closely with partners in telehealth to promote and share best practices. Lastly, MCA will lead the development of an educational campaign with photographic and video storytelling to illustrate examples of the digital divide and the impact of digital equity on Maine people’s lives. To further this goal, MCA will:
- Launch an Internet Safety for ME Campaign with its partners, creating various tools to be employed by trusted partners and leveraging media and law enforcement engagement.
- Launch an Affordable Devices for ME Campaign, with partners, that encourages and enables device donation for refurbishment and redistribution to covered populations.
- Produce a Digital Equity Story series, including video and photographic storytelling illustrating the impact of the digital divide, examples of digital inclusion programs, and the impact of digital equity on people’s lives and communities.
- Leverage Maine 211 and Bendable Maine as broadband and digital equity resources.
- Partner with the National Digital Equity Center to support a statewide cohort of digital navigators across organizations and agencies, hosting training and sharing best practices and resources.
- Work with the Telehealth and Telemonitoring Advisory Group and other telehealth partners to support telehealth education, best practices, and models to decrease barriers for covered populations.
5. Sustain and Grow Investment in Digital Equity
Maine’s commitment to digital equity means a significant commitment of resources to sustain the state's collective work and tackle a growing digital divide. To put many of these strategies in motion, Maine will need to raise funding well beyond what may be available to its State from the Digital Equity Capacity funding from NTIA. MCA will seek to double the resources to support this work by creating and raising funds for a Digital Equity Fund, providing support for partners seeking other funding sources, and tracking the impact of the Authority's collective work to help make a case for further investment. MCA will more than double NTIA’s investment in Maine by launching a $15 million Digital Equity Fund to support the strategies outlined in this plan. MCA will work with partners to secure resources from various partners, including private sector partners, ISPs, philanthropy, and additional state & federal funding sources.
IV. Measurable Objectives
Through the strategies and associated activities outlined above, MCA expects to achieve the following measurable impacts toward achieving digital equity in Maine.
1. Improve Access to Broadband
Every Mainer who wants an internet connection at home can get one. MCA will invest in infrastructure that reaches the 42,000 homes and businesses that remain with no connection (25/3 Mbps or less) as of December 2022—or approximately 6.5 percent of potential subscriber locations. In addition, Maine will work to improve service to 52,000 locations with unreliable & slow service below 100/20 Mbps.
2. Increase Affordability of Internet Service
The state aims to increase enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program by 64,000, going from 27 percent of eligible households in 2022 to 54 percent of eligible households by 2029. This will help to increase the percentage of people who pay $60 or less for internet service from 25 to 50 percent.
3. Ensure Access to Affordable Devices (& Tech Support)
Maine will distribute 50,000 free or low-cost devices that meet the user’s needs to covered populations (refurbished & new), and secure 25,000 donated devices from businesses, institutions, and agencies to be refurbished. The state will also improve access to and awareness of technical support by reducing the percentage of people who couldn’t fix their device by 10 percent; doubling the percentage of people who receive help from an institutional partner (library, school, etc.) from 5 to 10 percent; and ensure 100 percent of devices distributed include technical support.
4. Improve Mainers’ Digital Skills
Maine will provide 10,000 people with a digital skills assessment. Through this, at least 50 percent of people accessing digital skills assessment and skills training will achieve the individual goal to be established during their assessment or achieve a basic digital skill level. This will also improve the digital skills confidence of covered populations with the largest gaps. Maine will help to improve low confidence levels reported by covered populations across all skills by 10 percent.
5. Help Mainers Stay Safe Online
The state is shooting to reach at least 25,000 Mainers with internet safety outreach and education programming. Mainers’ confidence in finding tools to protect their personal data will be improved, with the goal being to increase the percentage of survey respondents who say they are very confident in finding tools to protect their personal data from 28 percent to 40 percent. Within this area, the state also aims to increase the percentage of people very familiar with maintaining their safety online from 39 to 50 percent.
6. Make it Easier to Access Government Resources & Programs Online
Maine will complete a user-focused accessibility audit on critical state resources used most by covered populations, and improve the digital skill confidence of covered populations in accessing government services online. Just 42 percent say they are very confident accessing or applying for government services online; Maine will improve this to at least 50 percent overall.
7. Sustain and Grow Investments
The state will raise $15 million for a Maine Digital Equity Fund to match the investment by NTIA.
V. Maine Wants to Hear From You
The Maine Connectivity Authority released its draft Broadband Action Plan on June 9, 2023. Public comments on Maine's draft digital equity plan can be submitted using this form until June 30, 2023. MCA will reflect on all that it has heard from individuals, communities and partners and revise the plan before submitting it to NTIA on August 1st.
1. This population was not explicitly identified within Maine's survey. These barriers are gleaned from focus group and community meeting findings.
2. This population was not explicitly identified in Maine's survey. These barriers are gleaned from focus group findings. MCA did not directly survey or meet with currently incarcerated individuals because of its Human Subjects Research restrictions; people in reentry were its primary focus.
3. More Native respondents reported having fiber internet service because a large proportion of the survey responses were generated in a tribal community where a fiber build has just been completed.