AUGUSTA, Maine — More than two dozen rural farmers, residents and business owners who struggle to maintain their businesses and ship their goods because of slow, spotty or at times nonexistent Internet service spoke last week in support of legislation that might help them improve coverage.
“We all know public broadband investment would expand economic growth, creating jobs in urban as well as the rural regions of our state,” said Jane Bell of Edmunds, whose family has farmed Tide Mill Farm, an organic dairy in Washington County since 1765. “The question for all Mainers is how to pay for the upgrade needed in the ‘infrastructure of connectedness.’”
The bill before the Legislature’s Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology seeks to increase funding for the state’s ConnectME Authority from $1 million to $5 million in order to expand universal broadband and high-speed Internet to the 6 percent of the state that has no access to such service.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Robert Saucier of Presque Isle, would direct the authority to use the additional funding to increase its rate of strategic broadband investment and to leverage additional federal funding to build more infrastructure in unserved areas.
It is one of about 35 bills dealing with broadband expansion being considered by lawmakers this session.
The majority of the 30 people who offered testimony, including Bell, spoke in favor of the LD 826 during a public hearing April 2.
Bell said 20 members of the family are earning their livelihoods in the easternmost corner of Maine. She noted Axiom Technologies is their broadband provider, but the 2 megabits per second connection offered does not meet the Internet needs of Tide Mill Farm. Axiom is not able to increase the bandwidth without considerable cost to them, and that cost would not be recovered.
In January, the ConnectME Authority decided that any areas with broadband connections slower than 10 megabits per second for downloads and uploads would be considered “unserved.”
Bell said in pushing for increased funding for the authority that, “if Tide Mill Farm is going to help feed Maine, fuel furnaces, educate tourists, ship wreaths and manage woodlands, we must have high-speed Internet.”
She suggested one method of funding the legislation might involve having “cellular phone companies charge a surcharge as the landline providers do.”
Jon Olson, executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau, the state’s largest general farm organization, said Maine continues to dominate New England with 8,174 farms across the state, with the value of Maine’s crops and livestock growing 24 percent over the past five years.
Olson noted that when he started working for the Maine Farm Bureau 35 years ago, a fax machine enabled farmers to receive and place orders immediately and correspond with customers and vendors. All the grower needed to use it was a phone landline.
“This technology mostly has been replaced by high-speed Internet,” he testified. “But the implementation of it is not as simple as having a land phone line.”
Enactment of the bill, he said, would “tremendously help” those unserved Mainers. “It is a question of fairness.”
Fletcher Kittredge of the Maine Broadband Coalition testified for and against the bill.
Kittredge said his organization “strongly supported the goals of the bill but also had concerns about some of the methods it mapped to reach those goals.”
He said the coalition felt it was a good idea to invest in rural broadband but not without first strengthening The ConnectME Authority, which is one of the smallest state agencies. Kittredge noted the authority was set up a decade ago to administer a limited number of small grants each year. Its resources are limited, and it has no Internet engineers on staff. The agency depends on outside volunteers to review grants, particularly for technical feasibility. He also said the authority does not have sufficient staffing to come up with an in-depth statewide roadmap for building a superior Internet.
Without strengthening ConnectME, he said, grants administered by ConnectME could be wasted.
Jim Gerritsen, who owns and operates Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater with his wife, Megan, said his organic specialty potato farm is heavily dependent on technology for record-keeping, order taking, cataloging and more.
He noted that, one recent weekday, his Internet was out for the entire day in the middle of peak-shipping season.
“We could not download orders, process credit card transactions, print shipping labels, track packages or manage online banking,” he said. “We kept our crew of 10 working. But the next day, when service was restored, we had twice as much to do. Poor Internet service costs our company $10,000 a year in lost productivity.”
Members of the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology have yet to hold a work session and take a vote on the bill.