Maine has been, for four years running, the 50th worst state in which to do business, according to Forbes Magazine. It ranks 49th for expected job growth in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.
Both of these dreary statistics can be explained by just one other: Maine ranks 49th for broadband speed and access, the Portland Press Herald recently reported. While our politicians dither and dicker about energy costs, wages and lost jobs, they’re missing the real cause of our economic malaise, which is as plain as the mud on our faces: Maine is 49th in broadband speed and access.
Through organizations like the ConnectME Authority and the Maine Broadband Capacity Building Task Force, we have spent millions with the specific mission of improving broadband in Maine. Obviously, the direction these organizations are providing is not working. Yet we continue to fund them and pat ourselves on the back, claiming tremendous broadband gains.
The Three Ring Binder project, built with $26 million in public money, promised huge broadband access expansions. Telecom companies advertise broadband excellence in Maine.
Now, the Broadband Capacity Building Task Force has come out with yet another report on what Maine needs to do to improve broadband in Maine.
Not very far into its report, the task force states: “Maine’s broadband problem is not that we don’t have enough ‘high tech’ businesses. Nor is it that we don’t have ‘fiber to every home and every business.’ Our problem is that we don’t even come close to fully utilizing the broadband capacity we already have.”
I submit that this “task force” does not come close to fully utilizing the obvious facts about the broadband technology we need to bring Maine out of its economic death spiral.
I further suggest that the authors of this study should contact Google and let the folks there know that Google’s fiber-to-the-home-and-business projects in Kansas City; Provo, Utah; Austin, Texas; and other states that offer consumers Internet connections 100 times faster than conventional broadband, are way off the mark.
One of the tenets of the report is that we should not expect the telecom industry to unilaterally expand these high-speed networks; the expansion should be driven by the demand of consumers, who will make growth profitable for the telecom companies. Which makes me wonder: Who wrote this report? Time Warner, Comcast, or FairPoint? If Franklin Delano Roosevelt had addressed the electric needs of this country with this mindset, Maine would still be lit by kerosene lamps.
If we truly want Maine’s economy to break out of its death spiral and begin to gain altitude again, we need to build fiber networks. We need some new vision on these boards, a vision that does not buy into the telecom industry’s need for profit and a vision that recognizes that if the rural areas had vibrant broadband-based businesses, they would be making a huge contribution to the economic welfare of Maine.
David Maxwell, program director at ConnectME, stated recently on MPBN’s Maine Calling show that it will be decades before Maine is fully connected by broadband. Lack of vision like this will only ensure Maine stays at the bottom. Very soon, we will overtake Montana and claim the 50th spot.
Take a look around the world, and around this country, to cities that are not building networks of DSL, cable, and fixed wireless as Maine does. They are building fiber. There are reasons companies like Google invest in these fiber networks. I can assure you that, contrary to this task force’s recommendations, if true fiber-to-the-home-and-business was in place, Maine would certainly not be 49th and 50th in business rankings.
How much more incentive do we need to change the direction Maine has taken? It is time for our governor, senators, local representatives, technology experts and, yes, the telecom industry itself to get in one room and make this happen.
There are millions of dollars available from ConnectME, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Connect America Fund, local tax increment financing arrangements and other sources that, if directed appropriately, could build these networks throughout all of Maine.
The Broadband Capacity Building Task Force should be letting the technology and the needs of Maine citizens drive this debate, not the bottom lines of the telecom industry. We’ve tried it the telecom industries’ way, and our rank of 49th indicates that their plan is not working.
Dan Sullivan of Cooper is an IT manager and chair of the Washington County Fiber Initiative, a grassroots organization trying to bring high-speed internet and jobs to Washington County and all of Maine.