February 28, 2020
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Bangor panel argues state must invest in broadband or fall behind

Stephen Betts | BDN
Stephen Betts | BDN
Rockport, Maine Media Workshops and College, Network Maine and GWI worked together during the past year to extend ultra-fast Internet service to Rockport Village.

BANGOR, Maine — Historically, economic development happened along navigable waterways. Later, it happened near railways, then interstates. Today, it will happen where there’s strong Internet, and Maine doesn’t have it, speakers argued during a Wednesday morning panel at the Spectacular Event Center in Bangor.

Shuttered mills and factories and dismal population trends further illustrate the need for change, they said.

“Same old, same old just isn’t going to cut it anymore,” Rockport Town Manager Rick Bates said during the event.

The Action Committee of 50, a nonprofit organization geared toward improving trade and logistics as a way of attracting and retaining jobs in Maine, hosted the event stressing the importance of widespread broadband Internet access to the future of Maine’s economy.

Bates; Lisa Leahy, associate executive director of ConnectME, a group established by the state to explore and promote broadband expansion; and Aaron Paul, broadband consultant for Tilson Tech, shared their thoughts on the importance of investing to spread broadband’s reach.

University of Maine System Chancellor James Page, an advocate for broadband expansion since his days at James W. Sewall Co. — an Old Town-based engineering and natural resources consulting and mapping firm — led Wednesday’s conversation. He called the expansion of high-speed Internet access “mission-critical work for the state.”

Rockport, a small coastal town with a population of about 3,300, made national headlines when its high-speed fiber-optic broadband went into operation last summer.

The hope is that by running high-speed Internet through town, more people would be attracted to start businesses and live there because of the region’s beauty and quality of life.

“For me, this is an economic development tool,” Bates said. “It’s not about improving people’s ability to connect to Hulu and Netflix.”

By leveraging the Internet, people can work where they live instead of live where they work, Bates said, paraphrasing Sen. Angus King’s remarks during the network’s unveiling ceremony.

The town has invested about $70,000 toward the network in tax increment financing, private investment and Maine Research and Education Network funds, according to Bates. Rockport’s Internet runs about 725 megabits per second (Mbps) on download and 690 Mbps on uploads. The connection at the Bangor events center where he was speaking was running about 10 Mbps on download and 6 Mbps on uploads.

Leahy said there are several barriers that have held back demand for broadband in parts of the state, especially rural areas. The biggest hindrances are “lack of perceived value” of high-speed Internet in homes and small businesses and cost.

Several bills have been proposed this Legislative session to help spur the growth of broadband infrastructure. Among them are LD 1185, which would establish a Municipal Gigabit Broadband Network Access Fund within the Department of Economic and Community Development to help municipalities and regional entities expand access in their areas.

LD 1063 aims to expand ConnectME in size — it has a staff of three — and authority, establishes new grant funds and allows ConnectME to draft three-year strategic plans to expand broadband service.

Broadband’s influence on economic development is an “academic marvel, because it’s the only thing that all economists agree on,” according to Paul. He argued the infrastructure is “fundamentally cheap,” when compared with investments, such as natural gas connections, because fiber optic cables can be hung on utility poles.

Maine is next-to-last in the nation in terms of broadband service.

“We can overcome that, provided investments are made,” Paul said.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Rockport’s network received international media coverage, but the coverage was national. Also, one statement Rick Bates made at the panel was attributed to Sen. Angus King.

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