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Feb 29, 2024

Opinion: Immediate action needed to secure affordable internet in Maine

High-speed internet is not a luxury for older Mainers, it is a necessity.

Maine has before it a historic opportunity to expand access to reliable, high-speed internet to everyone in the state, no matter where they live or what their circumstances are.

Access, however, depends on more than wires, poles and other pieces of infrastructure. It also depends on making sure that internet service is affordable, and that all Maine people have the tools and the skills to use it.

I’m proud to say that Maine is the first state in the country to have its digital equity plan approved by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. That approval is the first step in unlocking federal funding that can help Maine people – including older Mainers, veterans, low-income families, tribal communities, people living in rural areas and others facing more barriers – to connect to the internet.

The plan was developed after intensive collaboration with stakeholders, partner organizations and public participation, including a statewide survey. Through that work, the Maine Connectivity Authority found that 47% of Mainers say that they have difficulty paying for their internet service. We also found that 93% of Mainers say they are concerned about internet safety, particularly for older people and children, and that many people lack the technical skills they need to take advantage of technology. In all of the focus groups, people struggled to name a resource they can rely on to help them stay safe online, and most people rely on family members for technical support when something goes wrong with a device.

AARP Maine, on behalf of our 200,000 members in the state, applauds the approval of Maine’s plan to expand high-speed internet access and adoption across the Pine Tree State. High-speed internet is not a luxury. It is a necessity for older Mainers. Better connectivity allows more older adults to navigate online government services, participate in virtual medical services, find and maintain employment, meet daily needs and connect socially. In short, it will improve the quality of life and help older adults age in place safely.

This plan is Maine’s blueprint to tear down the digital divide in our state. There are several key strategies that have been identified to reduce barriers to internet access.

The Maine Connectivity Authority will continue to improve access to broadband through grant funding for local and regional projects. The authority will also maintain a sharp focus on affordability, ensuring that Mainers have a budget-friendly connection option.

The plan calls for making affordable, internet-capable devices available through public-private partnerships, as well as providing the technical training so that individuals feel safe, secure and confident using them. In addition, the plan renews a focus on making government resources and programs available online.

Finally, the plan calls for creation of the Maine Digital Equity Fund, which will combine private philanthropic support with federal funding to help achieve the goal of full connectivity for Maine people.

While putting this comprehensive plan together is a commendable start, there is much work ahead of us. AARP Maine looks forward to working with Maine Connectivity Authority and other key stakeholders toward the successful implementation of this plan.

We must continue to focus on ensuring that internet service is affordable no matter where a person lives. As Maine’s plan demonstrates, wires alone can’t solve the problem of connectivity. This is why AARP remains committed to the continuation of the federal Affordable Connectivity Program which provides direct support to Maine people to help them afford internet service.

Currently, eligible households can receive a benefit that provides a $30-$75 per month discount on the cost of quality internet. For many families, that can cover the entire cost of their service.

However, the program is at risk of running out of money in April. As Maine – in collaboration with regional and tribal partners – works to close the digital divide, it is our hope that Congress will maintain this critical program. Older Mainers are counting on immediate action.

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