June 01, 2020
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High-speed internet plays a crucial role in rural areas like Aroostook County

Stock photo | Pexels
Stock photo | Pexels

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Having high-speed internet is about more than being able to watch Netflix, chat on Facebook or play video games in your offtime. Advocates say that it is a necessity in modern America and a potential avenue to economic prosperity for struggling communities. Yet, they say rural America, including Aroostook County, has been left behind.

About 80 percent of The County population has access to high-speed internet that is 100 megabits per second or more, according to BroadbandNow, which tracks internet speeds across the country. While that number is higher than many other rural counties within the state, including 42 percent in Piscataquis County, it is a far cry from the dense population centers in Cumberland and York counties, where nearly 100 percent of residents have access to high-speed internet.

Gov. Janet Mills noted the need for robust and affordable internet across rural parts of the state in her State of the State address on Jan. 21. Citing the economic potential of new development, she is requesting $15 million from the Maine Legislature to expand broadband across the state.

Mainers are not the only ones focused on the matter. President Donald Trump mentioned the issue in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. Trump said he was committed to bringing high-speed internet to rural populations across the country.

Ben Sanborn is the executive director of the Telecommunications Association of Maine, an advocacy group featuring several Maine-based providers trying to expand internet access to rural parts of the state.

Despite forestry terrain that can complicate connections, Sanborn said it is possible to bring reliable and fast broadband internet to even the most remote sections of Aroostook County. The question is, how do you incentivize companies to take the leap?

“The core problems are the same for other rural states,” Sanborn said. “When you have a low population density, and it costs a lot to get to those pockets of people, how do you make a viable economic argument for providing those services?”

Sanborn said access to the internet has numerous benefits for rural communities: economic development, including the creation of new industries requiring internet access; expansion of online education; and reduction in loneliness for those who are elderly and disabled.

He said the Telecommunications Association had worked extensively with the ConnectME Authority in its mission to expand access. For Sanborn, the road to sustainable rural broadband is not through one sector, but a partnership between private business and federal, state and municipal offices.

Specifically, he said government subsidies and guarantees of multi-year contracts can encourage private industry to invest in areas that would be otherwise unsustainable.

Sanborn brought up the example of Pioneer Broadband’s work around Greater Houlton, including in Cary, Amity, Ludlow and Linneus, where he said state-funded grants incentivized Pioneer Broadband to expand access to high speed internet — though their fiber optic project in Houlton was privately funded.

Pioneer Director of Government/Public Relations Don Flewelling, who worked on the Houlton project, said it had been a successful rollout, having converted more than 1,000 users using lower speed connections to fiber optic ones.

Flewelling was unsure how many more Houlton users Pioneer had acquired since rollout but said it had been successful enough that Pioneer is looking to mimic the example as they establish fiber-optic internet in parts of Presque Isle (Blake Street to Pine Street, Main Street to Centerline Road). He said that was a project Pioneer was currently developing.

For places such as Aroostook County, which currently has 30,000 fewer people than it did in 1960, Sanborn said the advent of high-speed internet could even be a way to stop the exodus.

“You can really create new industries,” Sanborn said. “We can get away from the sense that the youth has to go to the city or out-of-state to have a good opportunity.”

Correction: n earlier version of this story misstated the source of funding used to upgrade internet through Pioneer Broadband in Houlton. The upgrade in the city of Houlton was privately funded. State grants were used to upgrade internet in areas surrounding Houlton, including Cary, Amity, Ludlow and Linneus.

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