By Kendra Jo Grindle, Special to the Press Herald
I have a colleague who likes to say, “Mainers spend more time on the internet highway than on I-95,” and they’re right. With increased reliance on virtual interactions and digital transactions, Maine’s communities are actively working to ensure universal access to high-speed internet for their residents. Gov. Mills’ recent announcement that everyone in Maine will get a good internet connection by 2024 presents a challenge that Maine communities and partners need to rise to.
Mainers have been working for years to establish affordable, universal internet service, but there are three key differences now. First is a peak frustration with internet service providers, which have been slow to respond to the needs of Maine’s people and businesses. Second is the availability of significantly more public funding than ever before. Third is an acknowledgment that internet infrastructure is as necessary as the roads we drive on, and that such infrastructure needs to serve all Mainers.
Maine communities have a long history of self-determination. Access to high-speed internet is no different. As local broadband committees, statewide partners and private-sector providers all look to close the digital divide, communities play a central role. An engaged community can fundamentally alter the economics of a broadband project.
For example, in Bremen, the broadband committee worked to understand the barriers to access, partnered with a local ISP, sought funding from the state and established fiber to homes throughout the community. With the committee’s involvement, subscriber rates increased, which generated more revenue for the private-sector partner. The committee also helped expand access to digital literacy opportunities. The overall buildout of the project ran more smoothly because they could tap into local expertise for at-home installation during a time when workforce constraints caused delays.
Other communities, after talking with ISPs in their area, decide that the best value for their time and money is to own the infrastructure itself (the wires, connections, etc.) and partner with an ISP to provide the internet service over their wires. The management of this infrastructure is shared with the provider, and the community monitors quality. This ensures the partnership continues to bring them the equitable, affordable access they are paying for. We see this operating in remote communities like Islesboro, Calais and Baileyville, with other communities lighting up similar networks this year.
No town in Maine is looking to become its own ISP like we’ve seen in densely populated cities. Why? Because the financial numbers don’t work and there are efficiencies in partnering with the private sector. However, owning the infrastructure gives communities a say in pricing and quality of service along with the opportunity to see long-term financial benefits from a revenue-generating asset. A lower upfront cost option might be to entice their current providers to “fill in the gaps,” but this gives the community much less of a say in price and quality and may cost customers more in the long run. There are solutions where only those taking the service pay for the infrastructure in the long term, and other solutions that treat the network as a community asset all are responsible for.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for Maine, but there are some best practices and approaches that can be guideposts for communities looking to expand and improve internet access. Engaging the whole community in the process, learning from others and working with the ConnectMaine Authority and the Maine Connectivity Authority as well as nonprofit partners like the Maine Broadband Coalition and Island Institute can help towns leverage the availability of public funding and their unique strengths to bring universal high-speed internet access. With remote work increasing for people in all corners of Maine, and with more people choosing to move to Maine for its high quality of life, communities have a golden opportunity right now to create a 21st-century internet highway for all Mainers.
Kendra Jo Grindle is a senior community development officer at the Island Institute, overseeing broadband strategy.