Having grown up in the last town in the country to have the crank phone, I think it’s safe to say I have an interesting relationship with technology.
Bryant Pond still promptly displays a giant statue of a 14-inch candlestick phone, commemorating the moment we all watched the operators “yank the crank” for the last time. No sooner had we embraced the “modern” dial tone than the cellphone came forth, freeing us from the cord.
Another critical technological milestone occurred the year I graduated high school: Netscape released the world’s first Web browser, a key innovation that brought the world into our living rooms.
I could never have imagined that two vastly different technologies, such as the phone and Internet, would converge into one device: the smartphone. Whether one is on a laptop, tablet or smartphone, the global marketplace is at our fingertips.
Well, if you’re privileged enough to live in an area where modern land or mobile broadband is available, reliable or affordable.
Therein lies the catch.
A rural state, Maine has made tremendous advancements in expanding access to remote areas in comparison to other states. However, too many farmers and other small business people still live beyond the proverbial “last mile” where broadband service is available. While paved highways ensure products can get shipped to their market, the Internet highway connects our businesses to a much bigger marketplace. When both pieces of infrastructure work together, our economy benefits.
In fact, according to the ConnectME Authority, more than 40,000 Maine households still do not have access to any form of broadband. And, in places where broadband exists, there often is only one provider. For our economy to grow, this dynamic must change. It will take a blending of local innovation and federal policy changes to effectively bridge the Digital Divide.
Currently, the Federal Communications Commission regulates broadband while states have been granted the authority — through our Public Utilities Commission — to regulate landline phone service as a utility, much like electricity.
When I spoke at the 2013 Washington Post Summit on Rural Broadband, I said broadband Internet should be regulated like a utility, at the local level. Local leaders are best equipped to identify the solutions that most effectively expand broadband access in their state.
At the time this was a very controversial idea, but it is gaining traction precisely because the current system leaves states with virtually no ability to leverage Internet service providers to expand broadband access to remote areas. States also have no means to enable healthy competition, the key to spurring innovation. Once a luxury, broadband access is now a core piece of economic infrastructure, and more voices are coming out in support of the idea of local control.
Google Fiber sent a letter last week to the FCC arguing, “The FCC should make sure this happens because it would promote competition and spur more investment and deployment of broadband Internet service.”
While politicians in D.C. debate whether to empower states to regulate, it is still incumbent upon Maine’s Legislature to modernize our own laws to better expand broadband access.
The ConnectME Authority has done yeoman’s work over the years on this front. However, much of the statute that guides its work was drafted about the same time the Netscape browser came out. It’s time for the Legislature to modernize the statutes to provide the authority with the resources and tools it needs to encourage competition and new ideas for deploying broadband more effectively.
Some view the crank phone statue in Bryant Pond as a commemoration of a town that held out too long for an archaic technology. For me, that statue is a constant reminder that we can hold strong to our history and our roots while still valuing the economic growth and job opportunities that strategic technological innovation can bring.
Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, was born and raised in Bryant Pond and is serving her fourth term in the Maine House. She has been published locally and nationally on rural broadband access issues and served on the Energy, Utilities & Technology Committee in her third term. She is in her fourth term. Follow her on Twitter @MissWrite .