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Jul 13, 2023

Our View: Major federal connectivity grant has to go a long way

Reaching 94,000 Maine homes and businesses that currently have unreliable internet or none at all is but one piece of a tricky puzzle.

Let’s begin with the obvious: The recent allocation of $272 million for broadband expansion in Maine is a positive development that will, managed well, finally bring our state up to speed (both proverbially and, in the case of megabits per second, literally).

Maine Connectivity Authority President Andrew Butcher called it “a tremendous opportunity.” Sen. Angus King hailed it as a “game changer.” Sen. Susan Collins looked ahead to the provision, in rural communities, of “a reliable connection to their loved ones, co-workers, schools, and medical services.” Gov. Mills declared it “historic in scale, historic in impact.”

The award is and can be all of these things. It is also worth noting that the dollar sum is as striking as it is, and even more funding than expected, because Maine’s need for this investment is striking. The scale of the task ahead for us is far greater than in other states. We will need to supplement the $272 million in different ways to complete it.

According to the allocation formula, 42,264 homes and businesses in Maine have no connection to the internet – none. In Vermont, it’s 33,646; 25,572 in New Hampshire; 12,522 in Massachusetts. A further 52,000 Maine locations are “underserved,” meaning that access is spotty, or too slow, or both. That’s about 15% of Maine homes and businesses in total.

What’s more, only roughly 24% of homes and businesses have broadband service that meets the state’s higher standard of 100 Mbps for downloads and uploads.

Internet access is part of the quest, here, but there’s more to internet access than the permitting and building of fiber networks and the deployment of other physical infrastructure.

The draft five-year plan of the Maine Connectivity Authority, the quasi-governmental agency set up by Gov. Mills in 2021, is the product of an impressive amount of community and public outreach. Released last month, it benefited from the engagement and input of six stakeholder groups comprising 117 individuals, organizations and agencies.

The draft plan, elegantly worded and thoughtfully presented, sweats the real meaning of access, referring repeatedly to interventions often collected under the heading “digital equity,” the importance of technical support, education, affordability of devices and services, more. The document is a credit to the work of the authority – and its many co-collaborators – the basic existence of which was instrumental to securing the federal funding in the first place.

Cost for consumers is among the most nagging concerns. According to a statewide survey by the Maine Connectivity Authority, almost half of Mainers have “at least some difficulty paying for internet service.”

Financial assistance, where it’s available, often isn’t known about; a major federal initiative, the Affordable Connectivity Program, to name one, offers qualifying households up to $30 per month off their bills (up to $75 monthly for people on tribal lands), as well as one-time discounts for devices used to get online.

Beyond the technological investment and the thoughtful and time-intensive public and personal outreach, the next five years will also involve a lot of administrative legwork by state officials: exploring the concept of public ownership in detail, for example, and going to lengths to determine where private expansion efforts will taper out and public subsidy should kick in.

Closing Maine’s gaping digital divide will take hard work and well-oiled collaboration. The good news is that a lot of that collaboration is already well underway and yielding fruit.

The reward for the canny use of the federal award is better economic outcomes, more options for civic engagement, for employment, for education, for easier access to health care and other essential services.

Let the transformation begin.

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