Delegation urges more broadband coverage

Posted May 02, 2010, at 7:31 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the state’s congressional delegation praise the federal funding the state has received to expand broadband access through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but say the need will not end when the stimulus money runs out later this year.

“We need to move forward with the implementation of the National Broadband Plan that goes beyond what has been achieved,” Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said last week. “The availability of broadband undoubtedly contributes to the essential business expansion and employment growth that our economy so desperately needs.”

She said that by the time all the recovery act funds for broadband are awarded, more than $4 billion will have been given to hundreds of projects across the country. She said the stimulus funding will not be enough to address the nation’s needs, particularly in rural areas, where what is called the “last mile” service to customers, both business and residential, is expensive to provide.

“I have heard from numerous small-business owners from across Maine who depend on a fast and reliable broadband connection as a matter of basic business survival, but who regrettably are struggling for increased access and speed because rural areas still lack adequate broadband service,” Snowe said.

She told fellow lawmakers about a small company in Maine that does animation and has lost business to other providers because it does not have Internet speeds that approach what similar companies have in Los Angeles and other large urban areas.

“They don’t want to move, but they may have to to compete,” she told other members of the Small Business Committee.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District agreed that more needs to be done, although she said the recovery act funding has helped move the nation, and Maine, further toward the goal of high-speed access.

“It is such a big economic development issue,” she said. “Frankly, it’s very hard to operate a business if all you have is dial-up or very slow Internet connections. It is just a huge impediment to our growth.”

Pingree said the investments need to continue from all levels of government and by the private sector. She said good Internet access is as important as phone service and other infrastructure to companies large and small.

“It is important that the people of Maine have equal access to the Internet, especially to broadband service, and we need to make sure we adopt policies at the federal level that support that goal,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. She agreed that while significant investments have been made, more needs to be done than the “jump-start” provided by the recovery act.

“I believe that it is essential to expand the broadband access throughout Maine to promote economic growth, and I am excited about the opportunities the Three-Ring Binder project will create,” she said. “This project allows the delivery of 100 megabits [of] broadband connectivity to businesses, households and community anchor institutions in these areas facilitating rural economic development, job stimulation, education and health care.”

The public-private partnership has about $7 million in private funds from the Maine Fiber Co. Inc. and a $25.4 million federal grant to build 1,100 miles of fiber-optic cables to provide high-speed and high-capacity lines that anyone can tap into for connecting to local companies and residential users.

Work is under way to prepare utility poles to carry the fiber lines.

“This is really a great project,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of the 2nd District. “This will help the university system and other users that need high-speed access.”

He said a professor at the University of Maine told him the limits of data speed have hurt some research projects on the campuses — projects that could help bring jobs to the state.

“Connecting Maine and providing universal access to broadband in rural areas of our country is crucial to our economic growth and job creation,” he said. “It is estimated that for every 1 percentage point increase in broadband penetration in a state, employment is projected to increase by 0.2 to 0.3 percent per year.”

Snowe agreed and said the United States is losing its technological edge to other nations that have invested more in faster Internet connections with higher capacity. She said improved Internet capability is essential for job growth.

“The United States has run an advanced technology deficit every month since June of 2002,” she said, “meaning we import more advanced technology products than we export. For 2009, our total advanced technology deficit was an astounding $56 billion.”

The Federal Communications Commission is considering changes to the rules that govern the Universal Service Fund, which was created to assure rural telephone service, to include Internet access in its mission.

There also are grant programs that provide assistance in building Internet infrastructure, and Snowe suggests they need increasing.

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