Hermon High School students learn about computer sciences at Husson University in Bangor in this 2013 file photo. The state is boosting broadband access at more than 300 schools in Maine in response to the increased demand for remote learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: BDN file photo

To help meet the demands of online learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the state plans to boost broadband capacity at more than 300 public schools across Maine by next spring.

NetworkMaine, a unit of the University of Maine System and internet provider for nearly 1,000 Maine schools and libraries, will work with Maine Department of Education to upgrade network speeds to 1 gigabit per second at all 301 Maine public schools that don’t already have high-capacity broadband, according to Jeff Letourneau, executive director of NetworkMaine.

“We’re just bolstering what we’ve been able to provide in the past to bring the schools up to gigabit speeds,” Letourneau said. “The vast majority of these 301 schools have been connected at 100 megabits per second. So that equates a 10-time increase in broadband speed.”

The 1 gigabit rate of speed allows for ultra-high definition videoconferencing, uninterrupted live streams, and eliminates buffering for videos.

NetworkMaine operates the Maine School and Library Network which provides Internet service to nearly 1,000 schools and libraries throughout the state. Most of the upgrade will be funded by the Federal Communications Commission, which is covering about $485,000 of the total cost of roughly $670,000. The state’s Maine Telecommunications Education Access Fund is covering an additional $187,000.

Inequity in internet access has been the top problem for Maine schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Maine Department of Education. In May, the department used $9.3 million in federal funding it received to purchase and distribute Wi-Fi hotspots and laptops.

Although schools reopened in September, a significant portion of learning remains online as most districts only allow students to attend school in-person a few days a week and conduct online classes or use platforms like Google Classroom the rest of the week.

School internet connections have been strained with the sharp increase in online education, requiring faster internet speeds at schools where teachers host online classes while their students tune in from home.

“We can’t solve the problem with connectivity at home. That’s a huge problem,” Letourneau said. “But we wanted to make sure that there was not anything at the schools themselves that would end up making the situation even worse. What it boils down to is trying to make a more robust remote learning environment for teachers and students.”

With the improved internet speeds, there will be fewer interruptions in video lessons and remote education will operate more smoothly, thanks to less frequent internet hiccups that end up distracting from the learning experience, according to Letourneau.

About 99 percent of all Maine public school buildings will have fast internet after NetworkMaine completes the upgrade in April. A third of the schools have already been equipped with the 1 gigabit speed.

“Since early on in this pandemic student connectivity has been a top priority,” said Beth Lambert, Director of Innovative Teaching and Learning at the Maine Department of Education.

“Maine’s teachers and administrators have been working tirelessly to adapt and, in many cases, learn new skills in order to teach their students during this disruption. I am proud that we are able to provide this upgrade and remove the barrier of limited bandwidth and allow educators to reach their students without interruption.”

Letourneau said a handful of island schools such as on Swan’s Island or Monhegan will not get upgrades with this project, but that NetworkMaine hopes to find a way to boost broadband capacity for those schools, too.

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