June 22, 2018
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Widening the Internet

When the Maine Turnpike was widened, no studies projecting how many jobs would be added or saved were needed to persuade the public to support the project. People intuitively understand that commerce relies on strong transportation links; that’s why transportation bond requests almost always win approval at the polls.

Twenty years from now, information infrastructure improvements, like the Three Ring Binder project that has won $25.4 million in federal funds, may enjoy the same sort of public assent. But now, unless you own or are employed at a business that relies on high-speed Internet access, you may not understand the need. But it is real.

Hundreds of small, creative-economy businesses are scattered throughout the regions that will be served by the three fiber-optic loops that will be built in northern, eastern and western Maine as part of the Three Ring Binder project.

Imagine an educational consultant who chooses to live in Cutler in coastal Washington County who has clients throughout the U.S. She needs access to high-speed Internet to conduct online conferences with students. If she is able to add more clients, she might hire another assistant. A custom furniture builder working in rural Monroe in Waldo County needs to send a dozen photographs of a work in progress to a customer in California. He needs high-speed Internet. So does the freelance travel book editor who lives in Monticello in Aroostook County. And the custom machine shop in Milo in Piscataquis County, which fabricates replacement parts for classic 1920s automobiles, using detailed specifications downloaded from the Web.

Though these businesses are imaginary, the scenarios are quite real. In addition to the boost to commerce that a reliable and high-capacity “middle mile” Internet network provides, there are other winners as well. Hospitals, rural health care clinics, schools, social service agencies and nonprofit groups of all sorts will benefit with more access to broadband.

And residential use should not be dismissed. There are quality of life advantages to having high-speed Internet: Mom and Dad can video-chat with their son in Iraq; a senior caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s can network with those going through the same trials; music performances and books can be downloaded, providing culture to areas far from venues and libraries.

The only skepticism the project raises comes over the role local Internet providers must play; that is, they must bridge the gap between the fiber optic and the rural homes and businesses. Already, 10 providers have said they want to use the broadband. The proof will come in how many areas actually are connected.

Just as transportation links are critical to a state like Maine, located in a corner of the U.S., so are information links, especially in the rural areas. The Three Ring Binder project provides a necessary step.

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