Looking for a little good news? Here’s some: Thanks to federal and state funding, Maine currently has $150 million to bring high-speed internet to places that don’t have it and improve service to those that do.
How do you get a piece of that action? Here’s a hint: You snooze, you lose.
“The communities that are ready are the ones that are going to get the most amount of investment,” Andrew Butcher said in an interview on Tuesday – the same day Gov. Janet Mills announced she would nominate him to head the new Maine Connectivity Authority.
For Butcher, heading the new state agency is a welcome progression from his work as chairman of the Maine Broadband Coalition and director of innovation and resilience for the Greater Portland Council of Governments, to overseer of Maine’s broadband landscape.
But it’s also a huge challenge. Money alone – $21 million from the state and $129 million in federal pandemic relief funds – isn’t going to magically achieve Maine’s goal of rapidly expanding adequate broadband service to every corner of the state. Nor can you simply sit back and assume that fiber-optic cable will automatically find its way to your neck of the woods, your road and, hallelujah, your living room.
You – and your community – are going to have to work for it.
For several years, broadband expansion has been the focus of organizations ranging from the Greater Portland Council of Governments and the ConnectMaine Authority to the Island Institute and the Maine-based National Digital Equity Center.
At the same time, local communities have joined forces under such banners as Maine West in Oxford County and the five-town Southwestern Waldo County Broadband Coalition to get a leg up on attracting high-speed broadband to parts of the state where robust internet access might otherwise be nothing more than wishful thinking.
To wit: According to state estimates, as many as 83,000 household in Maine, or 15 percent of the state, lack any high-speed internet access. And a far greater number, while hooked up, fall far short of current standards for upload and download speeds.
Now, with the Maine Connectivity Authority poised to begin allocating the long-awaited influx of public funds – it can award grants to businesses and communities, negotiate contracts with internet service providers, even own its own infrastructure – a big question looms: With Maine’s statewide broadband expansion cost estimated at $600 million, who will benefit from funding that, while unheard of before now, covers less than a third of the state’s need?
Those who plan for it, that’s who.
“Start anywhere,” Kendra Jo Grindle, senior community development director for the Island Institute, replied when I asked her last week what her advice would be to communities that have taken few if any steps to establish or improve their internet access.
“Start by having conversations, start by looking at all the resources that fortunately exist in Maine,” Grindle said. “Just get going. For those that don’t start planning and having the conversation, providers are not just going to show up at your door one day and build out for you.”
The Island Institute has long worked with Maine’s island communities to connect them with the rest of the world via fiber-optic cables and short-range microwave relay towers. A case in point: After four years of planning, Islesboro activated its community-owned high-speed broadband system in 2018. Financed through a $3.8 million bond approved by local voters in 2016, it now serves roughly 90 percent of the islanders, who pay a yearly subscription of just $370.
Drawing from that and other islands’ efforts, the Island Institute now offers a detailed guide to help communities navigate their way from nonexistent or inadequate broadband access to affordable connectivity for all.
Note the word affordable. It needs to be at the heart of any plan, both to ensure equal internet access for all members of a community and to achieve a “take rate,” or percentage of households that subscribe, that ultimately determines whether a local system is economically viable.
Susan Corbett is the founder and executive director of the National Digital Equity Center, located in Wiscasset and Machias. Long an advocate for fair and equal access to the internet, she sees the COVID-19 pandemic, for all the havoc it’s wrought, as a turning point in opening people’s eyes to both the possibilities of and the obstacles to quality home-internet service.
“The pandemic showed who can participate and who cannot in an online society,” Corbett said in an interview. It also played directly into the center’s mission to close what it calls the “digital divide” in Maine and beyond through education for those who struggle to navigate the internet and advocacy for those who can’t afford access in the first place.
Another case in point: In one of its “deep dives” into community demographics to gauge its digital landscape, Corbett said, the equity center found that 25 percent of the homes in Searsport had an annual family income of $10,000 or less.
“So if Searsport is considering doing a fiber-to-home project, then addressing the affordability is extremely important,” Corbett said. “Because what they don’t want to do is leave that 25 percent of homes behind.”
The possibilities are many. A community might strive to build its own system and hire a provider to operate it. Or it might contract with a provider to handle it all, much like Maine municipalities now do with cable TV providers. It might negotiate subsidies to help some afford the monthly bill, or join with neighboring communities to enhance bargaining power and establish an economy of scale.
But now is the time to be doing something. One place to start might be the third annual Maine Broadband Summit, an online conference scheduled for Nov. 18-19. Organized by the Maine Broadband Coalition under the title “We Can Get There from Here,” it will examine the finances of broadband expansion, the need for fair access and affordability, and a digital future that’s already upon us.
Closer to home, you might check out the coalition’s internet speed test, where you can enter your home address and get a look at your download and upload speeds at any given time. You can also click on a map showing the 29,000-plus tests conducted thus far – you might be surprised at just how far Maine has to go to when it comes to full statewide connectivity.
As Butcher, Maine’s incoming broadband czar, noted, “there’s some real urgency” for communities to get up to speed sooner rather than later.
“Now is the time to get ready. The resources that are coming aren’t enough,” Butcher said. “Where there’s demand informs where the infrastructure gets built. And the demand comes from equipped, engaged and informed communities that drive a process.”
Let the race begin.