Maine has been heading down the wrong Internet path for the last eight years. During this time, the ConnectME Authority, Internet coverage mapping services, broadband committees, telecoms and other entities have received taxpayer funds to increase Internet access in our state. And, yes, there has been a small increase in such access during this period. But what kind of access?
Many people assume all Internet access is equal. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are many definitions of high-speed Internet access, but there is only one true form of high-speed, future-proof, broadband Internet access. And that is optical fiber.
It is as plain, simple, obvious and irrefutable as facts ever get: fiber. No other technology provides the bandwidth to handle not only today’s web traffic but tomorrow’s as well. No other technology can as cheaply export Maine’s digital products to the rest of the world by symmetrical connections (in which the upload speed is as fast as the download speed). Ask any telecom guru, any IT tech — heck, ask the new great power in our land, Google, which is busy stringing high-speed, high-access fiber, and nothing but fiber, in cities across this nation.
Our ConnectME Authority, our broadband committees, our telecoms and our politicians seem to have a bandwidth problem of their own. The idea that economic success is inextricably linked to authentically high-speed Internet appears to be too big to load into their minds.
For instance, part of a National Telecommunications and Information Administration grant of $4.8 million (over $400,00 in fiscal 2013 alone) was awarded to a mapping company in Maine to create maps showing where Internet access in Maine needs to be improved. Perhaps we could have accomplished the same thing by spending $19.95 on the “Maine Atlas and Gazetteer.” Yes, Internet access throughout Maine is that bad.
Maine has not only spent far too much money in the past building outdated, insufficient and expensive non-fiber networks, we are slated to keep on doing so, though overwhelming evidence points to the futility of these efforts.
Consider this pattern: Maine expands its creaky DSL Internet networks by using aging copper wires, while Vermont builds fiber. Maine expands its expensive and self-limiting cable Internet networks, while Louisiana builds fiber. Maine expands slow and inefficient fixed-wireless networks, while Tennessee builds fiber. Countless similar contrasts could be cited from across the country.
The incontrovertible fact is that if we continue to build the kind of networks we have been building, as a state, we will ultimately fail. Our Internet will fail the needs of our students, our entrepreneurs, our elderly, and our big and small businesses. It will fail the needs of every last citizen and taxpayer.
History will not just record these efforts — it will mock them. It will show how our ConnectMe Authority, our broadband committees and our politicians got it all wrong. Recently, for example, the ConnectMe Authority decided to simply define “broadband Internet” as the pathetic 3 to 6 megabit networks it is funding.
Elsewhere in the country, true broadband Internet runs at 1,000 megabits per second (1 gigabit per second), but in Maine, even meager 3 megabit per second networks have been declared “broadband.” This would be laughable if it were not appalling. In the 48 other states that have better Internet access than Maine, communities are not simply defining what they already have as broadband, they are building still faster networks.
Maine is headed down the wrong side of Internet history. How long will we have to travel this route before we turn around and head in the right direction — toward prosperity? It is time to define ourselves, now and for the future, by defining access by high-speed fiber as the only form of Internet buildout that is acceptable to the people of Maine.
Daniel Sullivan 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. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.