AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s greatest challenge when it comes to leveraging broadband technology to grow the economy is not a lack of access or dearth of high-tech companies. It’s a lack of education as to broadband’s benefits.
That is, at least, the conclusion of a government task force that on Tuesday released a report on the state’s broadband policies.
In its 47-page report, “ Broadband: The Road to Maine’s Future,” the Governor’s Broadband Capacity Building Task Force recommends eight actions the state should take to leverage broadband technologies and create an estimated 11,000 jobs, $500 million in income and generate more than $70 million in new state and local tax revenue over the next decade. Planning Decisions Inc. completed the economic impact portion of the report.
At the top of the list of recommendations is providing financial incentives to help Maine’s small- and medium-sized businesses make better use of the Internet as a tool for growth. According to a survey conducted for the ConnectME Authority, which staffs the task force, 59 percent of Maine’s 141,000 small- and intermediate-size businesses do not have a website, and 55 percent see no need for using the Internet. This is in a country where 97 percent of people say they look online for goods and services, according to the report.
The Internet is “a vital connection to the world economy,” Warren Cook, the task force’s chairman, writes in the report’s introductory letter. “It is every bit as important for Maine as roads and piers and airports. It provides our state with the opportunity to overcome longstanding problems of isolation and distance from markets, challenges that have plagued our economy for centuries. But there’s more than opportunity here. There is also danger. Other states and other nations are racing ahead to develop broadband communication. If we fall behind in installing and using broadband technology, we will remain isolated and distant from markets relative to our competitors for another century.”
Here are the task force’s eight recommendations for steps the state should take to leverage broadband technology to grow the economy:
— Provide a three-year tax credit for all small- and medium-sized businesses for Internet-related staff training and marketing expenditures.
— Apply for federal waivers that would allow the reimbursement of in-home technologies that would let more of the state’s elderly on MaineCare stay at home and save Maine taxpayers more than $250 million annually by 2020.
— Expand Maine’s competitive advantage in health information systems by creating statewide education policies and incentives to promote a data analytics competency in K-12 schools and expand programs at the university level.
— Make the University of Maine system a “national model” for integrating classroom and online learning by setting the goal of having 25 percent of its courses online by 2015.
— Switch all Maine schools to 100 percent digital textbooks, and use the savings to expand Maine’s laptop program to all students in K-12.
— Shift more state services online to reduce the growth rate of state and local government administrative spending per person by 25 percent over the coming decade, which would have a cumulative saving of more than $260 million.
— Make the Maine Turnpike a “smart” road by installing fiber-optic cable along its length.
— Follow the federal government’s lead and redirect its state Universal Service Fund dollars toward expanding rural broadband access, not just rural landline service.
The nine-member task force was established to manage the creation of a Broadband Capacity Building Plan and is funded by the State Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The ConnectME Authority, created by the Maine Legislature in 2006 to facilitate the expansion of broadband technology throughout the state, staffs the task force.