For the past 40 years, Dr. Dan Cassidy’s patients traveled several hours to his medical practices in Blue Hill and Bangor.
The coronavirus pandemic changed that. Those far-flung patients, many of whom are older and find it difficult to travel, now “visit” the 72-year-old gastroenterologist via telemedicine and the internet. While he lives between Bangor and Brooksville, the slow internet in Brooksville, coupled with spotty connections at his patients’ homes, make it a challenge to work there.
“I am unable to open up a patient’s chart, review their labs, scans and other data,” said Cassidy, who practices at Northern Light Gastroenterology.
His is a story that echoes throughout rural Maine, intensified by increased remote work and schooling and the extra strain that is putting on aging or sparse internet connections. Video calls drop or freeze. Family members find only one person at a time can use streaming applications. Mainers returning to the state to work and live are finding it a challenge with the slower internet. Faster and more reliable technologies might not be available in certain areas or are not affordable.
Those stories also are resonating with lawmakers, who are increasingly hearing how internet limitations are holding back Maine’s ability to grow its economy and workforce. They are starting to respond. The Legislature stalled in the past on investments like a $15 million broadband bond blocked by Republicans in 2019. But voters passed a $15 million broadband bond in July 2020 as pandemic restrictions revealed the extent of Maine’s high-speed internet shortfall.
Last November, Gov. Janet Mills awarded $5.6 million in CARES Act funding to update internet infrastructure for rural schools and high-speed internet development is part of the age-friendly plan the Democratic governor and AARP Maine announced last week.
“I think we’ve reached a happy moment where there is a consensus building quickly that Maine should do something,” said state Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, who is sponsoring the $100 million broadband bond that the state’s economic recovery committee recommended to Mills last year. “It’s what I call a ‘big, hairy, audacious, bipartisan effort’ in the area of networking so our state would have reliable high-speed broadband and spend some money to do it.”
Bennett likened the broadband effort to rural electrification in the 1930s. The road to widespread broadband is steep and expensive, requiring buy-in from local partners over vast rural swaths. Maine’s internet speeds were fifth slowest among states last year, according to BroadbandNow Research. The state ranked 43rd in coverage, prices and speed, ahead of Vermont but behind every other New England state. A recent Bangor Daily News questionnaire largely backed that up, with 45 of 63 respondents saying they experienced internet outages or slowness during the pandemic.
Maine’s broadband action plan estimated it would take $600 million to bring high-speed internet to 95 percent of the state and recommends the state invest at least $200 million over the next five years to reach that goal. Public-private partnerships and federal dollars would make up the rest.
For now, users like internet publisher and knitting expert Clara Parkes are making do. Like Cassidy, Parkes lives in Brooksville, a town of about 1,000 residents at an edge of the Blue Hill Peninsula on Penobscot Bay. She found internet speeds too slow to conduct a Zoom lecture on knitting. Both have DSL connections that run the internet over telephone wires.
Parkes, who rented an apartment in Portland when moving from San Francisco to Maine with her partner, found that after she moved to Brooksville, slow or intermittent internet meant she had to keep the place in Portland to conduct business. File uploads that took seconds in Portland took hours or timed out completely in Brooksville, putting their jobs and reputations at stake.
To get around the speed problems, Parkes uses multiple internet technologies. The costs are adding up. The DSL internet and phone service in Brooksville runs $140 per month. Another service she uses as a backup, U2 Connect, is $99 per month. The Portland cable internet is $74.99.
“You’d be surprised how many people behave as if I live in a third-world country instead of a wealthy coastal town in Down East Maine — or they assume I’m lying, because nobody in 21st-century America could possibly have internet that bad,” Parkes said.
Others outside urban areas have been able to access newer technologies such as fiber and a satellite service from Elon Musk’s SpaceX called Starlink. Jack Gondela, a self-described “early adopter” of technology, switched recently from cable internet to Starlink and said his upload speed is about 10 times faster. The monthly fee, after an initial $500 equipment investment, is $90 compared to $74.99 for cable internet.
“I read online, watch YouTube videos and am a news junkie,” said Gondela, a Fairfield retiree who switched partly because his cable service was slowing down with the high use during the pandemic.
Both fiber and Starlink are the focus of several planned upgrades throughout Maine. In December, the Federal Communications Commission awarded four companies a total of $71.2 million over 10 years to bring high-speed broadband to close to 28,000 rural locations. They are Consolidated Communications, Pioneer Wireless, Redzone Wireless and Starlink, whose targeted internet upgrade areas are on the FCC’s website.
Other companies are jumping in as well. UniTel, a broadband provider in Unity, last week said it would offer fiber-to-the-home internet service and nationwide calling for $100 per month starting Feb. 1.
That is hopeful news to those awaiting faster internet. Dr. Cassidy expects telemedicine to continue beyond the pandemic, but worries that patients in rural Maine will be excluded if their ability to connect isn’t improved.
And Parkes sees migration from the city to the country, which is evident in Rangeley and other rural areas during the pandemic, to be a great opportunity for small towns like Brooksville that are barely holding on.
“But only where there’s internet,” she said. “The need for fast, reliable broadband isn’t just a luxury for binge-watching Netflix. It’s becoming a matter of life or death for rural America.”