A first step for raising the speed on Maine’s information superhighway

Posted June 23, 2014, at 2:39 p.m.
George Danby

Maine is up for another round of investments in its cyber infrastructure, funded in part by the ConnectME Authority. This year the state agency expects to award up to $1 million in grants to groups and Internet service providers that will expand “last mile” service to unserved areas in the state.

The endeavor is much needed, as some 35,000 households remain without broadband access, according to the authority’s estimates. But will Maine get the most out of this investment in expanding service?

It’s no secret Maine’s Internet service ranks among the worst in the nation. Mainers on average surf the Internet at speeds peaking around 7 to 10 megabits per second — adequate for basic browsing and video streaming, but inadequate for much more — while the most common level of service for Mainers is Federal Communications Commission Tier 3, which is a slow 3 megabits per second.

Since 2007 the agency has awarded more than $9 million in grants to groups and Internet service providers that have expanded service to 36,615 previously unserved households. Much of this investment hasn’t been in newer fiber technology but older copper cables with lower bandwidth capacities. The authority also has adopted the FCC minimum of 3 megabits per second. But is that enough?

Improved Internet connectivity is essential for competing in the global economy. In 2013 the White House released its state of broadband report, which acknowledged access to the FCC minimum is near universal. However, “we acknowledge the country is rapidly reaching the point at which baseline broadband evaluations should increase, and might instead begin at 10 megabits per second downstream,” defined by the FCC as Tier 5.

Already, Maine has significantly expanded its cyber infrastructure with the 1,100-mile “ Three Ring Binder,” which brought fiber cable within reach of more than 100 communities from southern Maine to The County. Despite the investment of nearly $32 million in federal grants, Mainers have yet to see a change in the quality of high-speed Internet access because fiber has yet to reach their homes.

Instead, Internet service providers continue to build off the infrastructure with outdated technology, which has severely underutilized the Binder’s capacity. Not only that, but this technology lacks the longevity fiber promises for the years ahead as demand for bandwidth rises.

The road forward isn’t easy. But Maine can start by re-examining how it invests its grant money in the cyber infrastructure to ensure the state won’t be left behind in the digital age. Running a fiber backbone across the state is an important investment that shouldn’t go to waste. The ConnectME Authority can lead the state by setting an ambitious goal of raising the definition of high-speed Internet from 3 to 10 megabits per second, which is where the national baseline is headed.

Maine soon will reach the point where minimum bandwidth isn’t enough to keep pace with the rapidly changing digital age. The 2013 Maine Broadband Task Force Report noted “21 percent of economic growth in developed economies is attributed to the Internet,” and laid out many goals to achieving significant gains in improving Maine’s cyber infrastructure.

Such investments are critical to Maine’s job creation prospects — attracting new businesses, increasing access to affordable education through online classes and improving access to affordable health care through telemedicine. Creating these opportunities, however, requires bandwidth the state lacks. The ConnectME Authority can help by ensuring Maine is ready for a future that largely is already here.

By taking initiative to invest wisely now with an eye toward the future, Maine can bring its infrastructure into the current century and attract the economic development and generation of young professionals the state needs.

 

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