BANGOR, Maine — Maine is the fifth-best state in the nation when it comes to equipping its schools with quality Internet connections, according to a study from a national nonprofit advocacy group.
A 2015 report on the state of broadband at K-12 institutions across the nation places Maine behind only Wyoming, Hawaii, South Dakota and Connecticut.
“Digital learning has the power to transform education in this country, but that can’t happen without first connecting all of our students to high-speed internet,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that advocates for better Internet infrastructure in schools.
In Maine, the group found that 97 percent of school districts meet the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s recommendation that schools have 100 kilobits per second of data transfer speed available per student. Maine and other states benefited in the rankings from this method of measurement because of small school sizes.
People who have been working to expand and improve Internet access in the state for years aren’t surprised that Maine did so well in the eyes of EducationSuperHighway, according to Jeffrey Letourneau, executive director for NetworkMaine, a unit of the University of Maine in Orono.
The spread of Internet to Maine schools got its first big boost in 1995, when the Maine Public Utilities Commission reached a settlement with a former telephone company, NYNEX, resulting from a dispute in which NYNEX was accused of overcharging customers. The corporation agreed to run Internet connections to every school and library in the state. That deal sparked the Maine School and Library Network, which today represents more than 900 schools, universities, libraries and other institutions across the state.
That group uses its collective influence and buying power to enter contracts with Internet service providers and bring high-speed Internet services and upgrades to institutions that couldn’t afford those changes alone.
Letourneau said the consortium spends about $9 million per year to keep the system running, plus makes additional investments to cover infrastructure upgrades. This past summer, the group entered a new three-year Internet services contract that resulted in a “10-fold increase in connectivity for the same amount of money,” Letourneau said.
The few Maine schools that aren’t hooked up with high-speed fiber-optic connections are primarily small island schools not connected to the mainland by bridges, according to Letourneau.
The state still faces a major hurdle in what it calls “the homework gap,” according to Letourneau and Mike Muir, policy director for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative.
“Kids go home and don’t have the connectivity they need to do their homework,” Letourneau said.
While schools have access to some of the best Internet speeds in the state, Maine’s homes often have woefully inadequate Internet speeds. Internet service providers will install high-speed connections for homes and businesses, but the costs are prohibitive for most.
Residential broadband requires lofty public investment to get the infrastructure in place, and those investments have been few and far between.
“There are schools that, with their Internet, have decided they should be a community resource,” Muir said. He cited Guilford schools, which directed their WiFi into the parking lots of school buildings so community members could have some access to a higher-speed connection.
Earlier this year, some northern Maine schools expressed frustration with their Internet access and speeds. Muir said that those issues were largely related to problems with the equipment and infrastructure in the schools, and not with the connections. He said the state worked with the schools to resolve the problems.
The report also names Gov. Paul LePage among 38 governors who expressed a commitment to increasing and improving broadband access in their states.
“High-speed Internet is necessary for taking advantage of technology in the classroom and at home,” LePage wrote in a statement shared by EducationSuperHighway. “I am committed to working with the private sector to expand broadband connectivity in every classroom in our state to ensure our students have the tools and skills they need to succeed in school and at home.”
Nationally, EducationSuperhighway lauded improvement over the past two years in terms of the percentage of schools able to meet recommended Internet speeds.
In its 2013 report, just 30 percent of of school districts were meeting the 100 kilobits per second per student goal. In this year’s report, that improved to 77 percent.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.