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John Schneck of Bangor is a former state representative.
Between the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the American Rescue Plan Act and other federal and state sources, Maine is likely to have up to a half billion dollars in funding that can be used to bridge its digital divide and ensure that every resident has the internet connectivity they need to keep up in today’s world.
Gov. Janet Mills has been clear that closing the digital divide is one of her top priorities. Last year, she signed into law a bill creating the Maine Connectivity Authority, a new state agency that has been tasked with allocating funds to achieve universal availability of high-speed broadband in Maine.
These developments reflect the historic opportunity that our state must finally level the digital playing field, but to do so, we will need to use available funding to precisely and efficiently expand broadband infrastructure to the 42,000 Mainers who lack it, as well as utilize the other federally funded resources at our disposal to address adoption-related issues that prevent residents from being online.
When it comes to funding new broadband infrastructure projects, Maine should follow the well-founded guidelines laid out in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which maintains that the priority for broadband infrastructure projects must first be given to unserved areas (those with no access to high-speed infrastructure).
Given the market factors around broadband, rural, unserved areas are reliant on this funding if they are going to receive the connectivity they need.
It’s not hard to understand why very rural areas have disproportionately lower connectivity. It’s expensive to build infrastructure in remote areas, and sparse population means there are fewer customers to support the new lines. This is not the case in most cities and towns across the state which have more residents and where providers have invested heavily to construct, maintain and upgrade their networks.
These dynamics are exactly the reason that federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle insisted that the bipartisan infrastructure bill prioritize funding projects in unserved, rural areas first. Without a concerted investment, these communities will continue to fall behind urban areas that already have multiple high-speed networks.
Just building new lines and infrastructure alone, however, will not solve the problem of connecting unserved people to high-speed internet. Maine must also leverage the Affordable Connectivity Program as a means of getting Mainers who have access to broadband but can’t afford it online.
According to the educational non-profit, EducationSuperHighway, income and a perceived inability to afford the cost of an internet subscription accounts for two-thirds of our nation’s digital divide.
Thankfully, the ACP helps solve this obstacle by providing a $30 monthly voucher off an internet subscription to eligible households. When coupled with the low-income offerings available from many of the nation’s largest providers, the ACP’s voucher makes a subscription free or close to it.
Maine should make a robust effort to amplify this program — 57,000 Maine households are enrolled in the program – but that is only 1 of every five of the 221,000 families estimated to qualify for the benefit.
Closing Maine’s digital divide is well within our grasp, but doing so will require a prioritization of broadband infrastructure funding toward truly unserved areas, as well as a diligent effort to get more eligible households enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program.
Right now, about 170,000 Mainer households don’t know there’s help available so that they can connect to broadband. With costs going up, this support to connect families to the internet is critical. Given the demands of our society, access to high-quality, fast and affordable internet is quickly becoming an essential service.
We need our policies to reflect that reality.