AUGUSTA, Maine — Farmers in rural parts of Maine who struggle to maintain their businesses and ship their goods out to customers while dealing with slow, spotty or at times nonexistent Internet service are rallying behind a bill moving through the Legislature.
The concept draft of the measure, LD 826, seeks to increase funding to the state’s ConnectME Authority from $1 million to $5 million in order to expand universal broadband and high-speed Internet into the 6 percent of the state that has no access to such service.
Jim Gerritsen, who owns and operates Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater with his wife, Megan, said Wednesday that his organic specialty potato farm is heavily dependent on technology for record keeping, order taking, cataloging and more.
“We upload and download pictures, produce mail order catalogs, use social media, produce a newsletter. Those are fairly typical needs for businesses,” Gerritsen said.
But rural farmers and businesses like his are hampered by not having reliable access to high-speed Internet, he said.
“On Monday, during the busiest part of the shipping season, we did not have Internet for the entire day,” he said. “We had no ability to process credit cards, look up orders or print labels. When you lose an entire day of work, it is hard to make it up.”
Gerritsen said that even when the Internet at the farm does work, it is frustratingly slow.
David Bright, who operates BrightBerry Farm in Dixmont with his wife, Jean Hay Bright, said Wednesday that the bill could make a big difference for growers in rural Maine who are considered unserved by high-speed Internet service.
“The purpose of this bill is really to say that we need to get everyone connected to broadband Internet service,” said Bright, who also is a member of the Maine Farm Bureau. “We need to look at the places that are unserved and get them connected to the grid.”
He added that he had recently spoken to the owners of Tide Mill Farm in Edmunds, an organic dairy in Washington County.
“They are on the Internet quite a bit,” he said. “But they were told it would cost between $20,000 and $30,000 to get real Internet coverage out there. That is a tremendous amount of money for a small dairy farm.”
Bright said Wednesday that Gerritsen was a major catalyst for the bill, and Gerritsen said that he was prompted to ask for the legislation after seeing the Three Ring Binder project completed in 2012.
The 1,100-mile statewide fiber-optic network runs from York County to Calais and Presque Isle and is connected to 30,000 telephone poles along the way. Customers lease fiber on the network.
“It created for us an opportunity to get fiber-optic,” Gerritsen said Wednesday. “We have spent the last two years trying to get it, but we were told it would cost $12,000 for them to run the line 3,200 feet to our farm. We tried to work with ConnectME on it, and they did the best they could, but there just is not enough funding.”
ConnectME is a component unit of Maine state government that works to bring broadband to everyone while also helping students, business owners and other residents grasp how valuable a tool it can be.
Gerritsen said that expanding broadband access to unserved areas would “be a major improvement for the Maine economy. I think the lack of Internet infrastructure is a problem that keeps our state from moving forward. It is hindering us from keeping our children here and keeping businesses from coming here and staying here.”
Phil Lindley, executive director of ConnectME, said Wednesday that he hears complaints such as those lodged by Gerritsen from Maine farmers and small business owners “all the time.”
“I have talked to Jim Gerritsen many times, and I know that if you are a small business owner and you are not on the web, it is like you’re invisible,” he said. “You rely on Internet service every day. ”
Bright said he was optimistic the bill would pass.
“I think it is just crucial that we don’t leave anyone behind,” he said.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Robert Saucier of Presque Isle would direct the ConnectME Authority to use the additional funding to increase the rate of strategic broadband investment and to leverage additional federal funding to build more infrastructure in unserved areas.
A public hearing is planned April 2 at the State House in Augusta.