Fiber connections bring broadband internet to businesses and households in Down East Maine. Credit: Courtesy of the Downeast Broadband Utility

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Peggy Schaffer retired in August as the director of the ConnectMaine Authority. She is on the  policy and communications committee for the Maine Broadband Coalition serves on the board of the American Association for Public Broadband.  

Community decision making is the foundation of Maine’s DNA. Town meetings, volunteer school boards, local planning efforts are all central to what makes this Maine. The effort to expand high-speed internet access is no different. Dozens of communities have started this process with local people identifying locations and groups needing better service to develop plans addressing these gaps.

But these community-lead efforts are under threat from  big monopoly internet service providers, who fear competition will lose customers. Companies like Charter Communications (Spectrum) are working across Maine to sow distrust in these hard working, community-based and knowledgeable volunteers trying to address service gaps that private companies have failed to fill for decades. It is the same tactic they have used in other states like  Michigan and  Ohio to attempt to derail community lead solutions.

At the heart of this issue is funding. For the first time Maine has real funding to build out networks to serve areas of the state lacking a high-quality internet connection. And communities are best placed to make choices about what type of technology that needs to be, who it should serve, and how access to that infrastructure should be owned. Given the scale of public funding supporting this infrastructure buildout and the long-term importance of internet for education, workforce, telehealth, and economic development, community governance is essential to ensure the internet remains affordable and accessible for decades to come.

We’ve done this before in America. These models were how telephone service and electrification were built out in rural areas. But with the internet, private monopolies couch their fear-based campaigns in misleading concerns like overbuilding broadband networks and taking resources away from other community needs. They cite examples,  using bad data, of community-owned internet networks that “failed” across. These claims are all red herrings.  

First, federal and state funds can only be used to build to areas where there is not currently a high-quality high-speed connection. “Over building” is an industry term for “building upgraded infrastructure in areas we have served inadequately for years.” We all learned during the pandemic that our outdated internet is inadequate for the 21st century economy. Creating competition for these legacy monopolies is likely to increase quality of service and drive down prices.

Second, the public has an interest in ensuring citizens and businesses have affordable, reliable, high-speed internet. Internet is so important nowadays, we need to think of it more like roads, schools, and electricity – critical infrastructure publicly financed and governed. Internet connects us to doctors, teachers, government, opportunities, families, entertainment – vital elements to every community.  It is central to a community’s well-being that everyone has equal access to that resource.  One way to ensure that is for the community to take ownership of that infrastructure, and partner with an internet service provider or two to bring the service to everyone.

Community-owned networks are succeeding across the country. Utopia, Utah serves over 20 communities with its open access that allows customers to  choose from 16 different ISPs for $35 a month. Fairlawn, Ohio is using its revenue to improve service and  lower the cost of service to all. Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of the first municipal networks, provides  free internet to all students.

Not every community is going to decide to own their own network. Many will work closely with local and national ISPs to bring better service to their area. But those that do decide to own their infrastructure shouldn’t be targeted by political campaigns filled with disinformation and funded by monopoly ISPs. Community-owned infrastructure doesn’t preclude ISPs from operating in the same territory. It encourages  competition and  offers  better service to more homes. 

Maine communities earned the right to make their own choices on who provides their internet. It is a choice ISPs should respect.