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Question 1 would authorize borrowing $15 million to invest in high speed internet infrastructure, also known as broadband. It would be used to match as much as $30 million from federal, local and private sector sources.
This would be the first-ever bond investment of its kind in Maine, and given the long standing and increasing need for better internet connectivity — particularly in rural areas of the state, and as the coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance of remote services — it is both overdue and timely.
The bond is only unprecedented because an earlier $15 million proposal failed to make it one the ballot last November after falling to Republican opposition during a disappointing legislative special session defined by partisan bickering. Thankfully lawmakers did not make the same mistake earlier this year, and voters should take this opportunity to invest in connecting more of Maine’s communities to high-speed internet.
Dedicating more state resources to broadband, and using them to leverage federal and private sector dollars in the process, made sense in 2019 and makes even more sense today. Historically low interest rates and the lessons from remote learning, health care delivery and commerce during the pandemic should help make Question 1 an easy decision.
According to the organization Broadband Now, Maine is in the bottom 10 states in the country for internet coverage, speed and price. The ConnectME Authority, a state entity tasked with promoting broadband that would oversee the disbursement of the bond funding, estimates that nearly 85,000 households in Maine are unserved or underserved when it comes to broadband access.
“The digital divide is real, and the ‘haves’ are continuing to have, and the ‘have nots’ are continuing to fall behind,” Mark Ouellette, the president and CEO of Machias-based rural broadband company Axiom Technologies, told the BDN last week. “And this infrastructure helps bridge that gap significantly for those who are ‘have nots’ at the moment.”
Lori Parham, the state director of AARP Maine, expanded on that point and noted that the pandemic has shown how prevalent that divide is in almost all parts of life.
“For our children who are literally driving to parking lots outside of libraries or town halls, to older folks who are absolutely and completely disconnected — because I get those phone calls from people — to our small-businesses owners,” Parham told the BDN. “Now more than ever we’re seeing how internet is so critical and intertwined with everything we do.”
Even without the challenges and inequalities laid bare in recent months, improving internet access has to be part of building and growing Maine’s 21st-century economy and workforce.
“Beyond a necessity for the economic growth of our state and the sustainability of its rural communities consistent with the recent 10-year statewide economic plan, Maine’s public universities believe broadband access is a fundamental issue of equity,” Samantha Warren of the University of Maine System testified in March.
Maine has an opportunity — an imperative, really — to market our quality of life and attract talented people to live and work here. But the success of such an effort relies heavily on internet access.
“In discussing this bill, the members of our Legislative Committee identified numerous instances in which inadequate access to broadband has caused potential homebuyers to pass on a property or even terminate a pending sale,” Andy Cashman testified in favor of the bond on behalf of the Maine Association of Realtors.
Maine, it seems, has been talking about rural broadband forever. Despite investments like the Three-Ring Binder and ongoing community broadband grants from ConnectME, challenges and barriers to connectivity persist. The authority’s 2020 Action Plan released in January recommended at least $200 million in state investment in the next five years. This $15 million bond question would be just a drop in the bucket of that recommendation, but compared with ConnectME’s expected yearly funding of around $1 million, it can make a real difference.
“High-speed internet connections are the underpinning of our economy. Whether it is learning at home, working at home, getting health care at home, or connecting with markets beyond your region, the internet is the great equalizer that eliminates the impact that geography has traditionally played in our economy,” Peggy Schaffer, the ConnectMe executive director, testified in March. “But the reality is if you are not connected to the internet today, you are not going to get connected without subsidy from the government — state, federal or local, or more realistically all three. That is a simple truth that cannot be ignored.”
Question 1 won’t solve Maine’s connectivity issues overnight, or even years from now. But it will marshall resources from all three of those sources Schaeffer mentioned, and hopefully be an initial step to more consistent, significant broadband investment in the state.