Town meeting season in Maine often results in plentiful news about local issues being debated, approved, and rejected in communities throughout the state. This has been the case in 2019, but there’s one issue in one small Penobscot County town that deserves a bit of extra attention.
Voters in Alton last month nearly unanimously approved the expansion of high-speed fiber internet to all locations in town. Alton, in taking control of its future by strongly supporting high-speed internet access for the community, should serve as a role model for other towns in Maine.
High-speed internet access is crucial for economic development in today’s world. Businesses rely on it, and opportunities to work from home are more prevalent than ever. Fast and reliable internet is also becoming more and more important for aspects of everyday life, and it allows rural residents the chance to age in place and access other opportunities they might not otherwise be able to.
Telemedicine, for example, is becoming more available and more popular. With reliable high-speed internet access, more people are able to take advantage of its benefits and avoid having to drive long distances to see a doctor for non-emergency reasons.
Then there’s distance education, which provides opportunities to people from all walks of life and all ages to further their education without having to drive to or live on campus, providing flexibility to work or tend to family needs while earning a degree.
These are but two examples of ways that fiber internet access can have a large impact on a small community. In Alton, community members recognized the benefits of high-speed internet access after we were able to build fiber to the premise to a small section of town along Bennoch Road with the help of a ConnectME grant in 2017. Within a year of that project being completed, the Select Board began exploring how to bring it to the rest of the town and reached out to us to see how we might help.
At Otelco, we’re thrilled to be able to collaborate with Alton. In addition to the voters’ approval of a $150,000 appropriation and our investment of $290,000, a successful grant application to the ConnectME Authority, which we are building support for, is the third funding element necessary to begin construction.
Through this project, Alton is escaping the “doughnut hole” trap that all too often results in rural communities or parts of communities missing out on needed internet improvements. Because funding for rural internet access projects often focuses on the unserved, the underserved — those with slower and outdated internet access that is nonetheless still considered serviceable — are unable to get the necessary funding for projects. This often means that town centers, where economic activity is greatest, can start to fall behind as the outer parts of towns are focused on.
While we are glad to see any rural area gain high-speed internet access and all of the benefits that come with it, we believe that smart, collaborative funding approaches like that which we are undertaking in Alton can help avoid the connectivity “doughnut hole” and allow towns to improve their internet access in a way that benefits all residents as their centers of economic activity are able to stay up to date with technological demands.
Though the Alton project is contingent on the acceptance of a grant approval from ConnectME, the successful collaboration thus far and the enthusiasm of the town’s residents for the project demonstrates what is possible for Maine towns for internet access improvement projects.
Even though our national and state legislators are working to establish funding for broadband infrastructure, it’s wise for rural towns to take Alton’s lead and work proactively with providers to develop and realize the community broadband vision that best serves their needs.
Trevor Jones is vice president of marketing, sales and customer service at Otelco.