I have a colleague who likes to say, “Maineers spend more time on the Internet Highway than on I-95,” and they’re right. With an increased reliance on virtual interactions and digital transactions, Maine communities are actively working to ensure universal high-speed internet access for their residents. Governor Mills recent announcement Getting everyone in Maine to get a good internet connection by 2024 presents a challenge that communities and partners in Maine must address.
Mainers has worked for years to establish universal and affordable internet service, but now there are three key differences. The first is a spike in frustration with internet service providers, who have been slow to meet the needs of Maine residents and businesses. Second, the availability of much greater public funding than ever before. Third, recognize that Internet infrastructure is as necessary as the roads we travel on, and that such infrastructure must serve all Maine residents.
Maine communities have a long history of self-determination. High-speed Internet access is no different. As local broadband committees, statewide partners and private sector providers all seek to bridge the digital divide, communities play a central role. An engaged community can fundamentally change the economics of a broadband project.
For example, in Bremen, the broadband committee worked to understand barriers to access, partnered with a local ISP, sought funding from the state, and established fiber to the community homes. Thanks to the committee’s participation, subscription rates have increased, which has generated more revenue for the private sector partner. The committee has also helped expand access to digital literacy opportunities. The overall construction of the project went more smoothly as they were able to tap into local expertise for in-home installation at a time when labor constraints were causing delays.
Other communities, after talking to the 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 to an ISP to provide Internet service over their wires. The management of this infrastructure is shared with the provider, and the community monitors the quality. This ensures that the partnership continues to provide them with the fair and affordable access they pay for. We see this working in remote communities like Islesboro, Calais and Baileyville, with other communities turning on similar networks this year.
No city in Maine is looking to become its own ISP like we’ve seen in densely populated cities. Why? Because 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, as well as the opportunity to see the long-term financial benefits of an income-generating asset. A lower upfront cost option could be to incentivize their current vendors to “fill the gap”, but this gives the community far less influence over 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 run, and other solutions that treat the network as a community asset are all liable.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for Maine, but some best practices and approaches can serve as benchmarks for communities looking to expand and improve Internet access. Involving the whole community in the process, learning from others, and working with the ConnectMaine Authority and Maine Connectivity Authority as well as nonprofit partners like the Maine Broadband Coalition and the Island Institute can help cities take advantage of the availability of public funding and their unique strengths in bringing universal high-speed Internet access. With the rise of remote work for people in every corner of Maine and the growing number of people choosing to make Maine their home for its high quality of life, communities now have a golden opportunity to create a superhighway 21st Century Internet for everyone in Maine.
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