Mar 15, 2023
Regional coalitions seek public input on access to high-speed internet
Regional and Tribal Broadband Partners, funded by MCA, work to ensure all voices are heard to inform the Broadband Action Plan by organizing in-person community listening sessions and focus groups.
People in southern Maine will have multiple opportunities in coming weeks to weigh in on efforts to expand access to high-speed internet.
That input will help the state determine how to spend as much as $250 million in infrastructure investments and $125 million in digital equity and inclusion programs over the next five years.
“We’re trying to get a better sense for folks who aren’t able to take advantage of all the benefits of high-speed internet, what barriers do they face?” said Clara McCool, regional broadband coordinator at the Greater Portland Council of Governments.
“Do they not have cable running by their house? Or is it an affordability issue, where they aren’t able to pay the monthly subscription cost to connect to the internet or have affordable devices to log into the internet?”
GPCOG will host four listening workshops in March and April at libraries across Cumberland County. The Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission will also host one in April at York County Community College.
Both organizations are part of the Regional and Tribal Broadband Partners Program, which has identified regional partners across the state. Each one has formed coalitions of local groups, such as nonprofits, libraries, local government officials and others, to learn more about the needs in their counties. This spring, those regional coalitions will deliver reports that will inform a statewide plan, which will ultimately go to the federal government.
“The goal from the state’s perspective is to understand that each county is going to be facing a different set of barriers when it comes to getting people online,” said McCool. “It makes sense to have these local locations doing that outreach to figure out what rises to the top.”
In Cumberland County, McCool said, the challenges will be different in rural and urban areas. She hopes the workshops glean input about infrastructure and affordability, and she also hopes to hear how grant funding could be used for training programs.
“Do they have the digital skills to use the technology and feel comfortable being on the internet and using different programs?” she said. “If not, what skills are needed?”
Bridgton Library Director Amy Stone is a member of the coalition in Cumberland County.
“Digital inclusion is critical to achieving rural equity to access information, social services, medical services, and employment opportunities,” she said in a news release. “Public libraries are uniquely positioned to provide local support to local residents as we move forward with universal broadband access. We help people get connected, feel comfortable with devices, and use the internet safely.”
The Regional and Tribal Broadband Partners Program is administered by the Maine Connectivity Authority, the quasi-governmental agency formed by the Legislature in 2021 to manage a massive influx of federal dollars to improve broadband access.
The Maine Connectivity Authority is also asking people to take an online survey to understand what infrastructure investments are important to residents. That survey is available at GPCOG.org.
“Internet access is now a critical part of civic engagement and participation, employment and access to essential services, such as education and telehealth video conferencing,” said James Rather, project manager and director of strategic initiatives at the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission. “Access to the internet is so important to function in society now. We don’t want to leave anyone behind.”