Maine communities are closing the digital divide to join the global economy

                 George Danby | BDN
By Briana Warner and Nick Battista, Special to the BDN •

It’s inspiring to see what one small community can do to change the trajectory of its future. The Cranberry Isles, a tiny year-round island community off the coast of Mount Desert Island, just finished the first phase of a fiber-to-the-home community broadband network.

Just a year ago, residents had internet that was sometimes too slow to send an email. Upload and download speeds on the Cranberries now exceed 100 mbps, meaning they are able to join the global economy with faster internet than most of the U.S.’s metropolitan areas. Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the ConnectME Authority were clearly impressed with the ambition of this project. The recently awarded $1.3 million in federal funding will help cover almost all of the construction costs.

Broadband is so important to the future of the community that residents even voted to issue a bond themselves if that was the only way to make sure the project was built. The mostly volunteer broadband committee worked tirelessly to hold community meetings, create informational fliers, and write hundreds of pages of grant applications. They partnered with Axiom Technologies to design and construct an economically viable network.

Through it all, the Island Institute has been proud to assist with the community process and support the community leaders doing the hard work. It is a true public-private partnership where everyone has skin in the game.

This sort of public-private partnership is one model for the other 36 communities working with the Island Institute to improve their broadband capabilities. Across all of these communities, local leaders are focusing on broadband because it can diversify career opportunities, help strengthen small businesses and give elders access to telehealth to help them stay in their communities longer. It also provides educational opportunities for students and adult learners.

As contradictory as it may sound, reliable high-speed internet can help communities maintain their traditional way of life.

Market forces alone will not provide broadband for Maine’s rural communities, as internet-service providers need to make sure their investments will pay off. Often that’s not possible in much of rural Maine where there are too few customers per mile of broadband infrastructure. Residents in these small communities are taking matters into their own hands to avoid falling behind the rest of the global economy.

Fortunately, Maine is starting to move in the right direction. The residents of Calais and Baileyville used authority granted through recent legislation to form a broadband utility district, and are taking advantage of new rules that make the actual process of attaching fiber-optic cables to utility easier.

Existing state and federal policies to subsidize rural internet access are failing communities like Baileyville, Calais, Penobscot, Millinocket, East Millinocket, Medway and Islesboro, forcing them to solve their broadband problems themselves. In some places, internet capabilities are so unreliable that businesses struggle to run credit card machines, yet this internet access is often considered good enough to prevent them from qualifying for numerous state or federal programs.

Most existing government programs are designed to make sure everyone has some level of connection — not provide world-class speeds and a connection to the global economy. Providing bad internet doesn’t work anymore, and we need to stop trying to solve the internet access challenges of the last decade.

Instead, we need to effectively leverage limited public funding by making long-term investments through public-private partnerships to improve the business case for providing broadband to rural Maine.

We should be inspired by the Cranberry Isles and the other Maine communities utilizing public-private partnerships to help ensure a bright future. Merely being connected isn’t good enough to increase economic stability and growth or attract and retain new families. Government funding should reflect this. Maine shouldn’t continue to resign itself to being one of the worst connected states in the country.

Closing the digital divide by connecting all of Maine with broadband infrastructure is one of the few economic development challenges facing Maine that we know how to, and can actually, solve. The next two to three years is a critical time for Maine to make significant investments in broadband infrastructure.

Let’s make sure we make the right investments and send a strong message that Maine is open for businesses — now and for the future.

Briana Warner is the economic development director at the Island Institute. Nick Battista is the policy officer at the Island Institute.

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