On July 14, Maine residents will have the opportunity to vote for an incredibly important bond issue. Question 1 asks if we are willing to invest $15 million of Maine’s money in a bond, matched by $30 million of other funds, on high-speed internet infrastructure for unserved or underserved areas.
While there are good reasons to be hesitant to spend money in these unpredictable times, it is well past time to make this investment in broadband for both economic and educational reasons.
As a candidate for the Maine Senate, I’ve spoken with constituents up and down the east side of the Penobscot River who have struggled to maintain businesses and educational experiences in their communities.
I met a resident in Penobscot who moved back to Maine to be close to family. He was able to bring his technology business with him, but only if he went to the local school to use the WiFi to upload his work because the connectivity at home was so slow that the uploads of his work took hours and sometimes days.
At last month’s Brewer High School board of trustees meeting, Superintendent Gregg Palmer informed us that there were students not able to participate in their online classes this spring because of the lack of internet. Even loaned “cellular hotspots” didn’t work in some homes.
And I spoke with a resident of Burlington who was sadly disappointed when the Zoom calls with grandkids just didn’t work, cutting off her ability to see them during the pandemic.
These are just the problems we are currently facing due to a shortage of quality internet connection throughout Maine, and we should be concerned. But more importantly, we should be looking to solutions now for our economic woes post-pandemic.
As the coronavirus is hitting hard in metropolitan areas, it is reasonable to expect some city-dwellers will consider a move to safer locations. The low infection rates in our state, along with its beauty and the high quality of life, will be a top choice if we are able to market ourselves as the best possible location for their new work-from-home spaces.
The pandemic has already forced companies across the world to invest in technology that allows employees the opportunity to work from anywhere with quality, high-speed internet. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 75 million people are employed in jobs that are at least partially compatible with working from home and expects that 25 percent to 30 percent of workers in the U.S. will be working from home at least partially by the end of 2021. We should make it a goal to attract as many of these often young, highly educated workers and their families as possible. This is a golden opportunity if we invest now.
High quality internet access is also incredibly important to our students. In its 2019 Measures of Growth Report, the Maine Development Foundation noted that our students are already behind the curve in reading and math in elementary and middle school. They cannot afford to, and we cannot afford to let them, slip further behind.
While the pandemic will not keep our schools closed forever, the innovations that it has produced will likely affect our children’s education for many years to come. As classes across the country remain online and educational resources find themselves primarily accessed via the internet, we do our kids and our state a disservice by not providing access.
Maine has an incredible opportunity to take the lessons of this pandemic and apply them in ways that will help us create a better future. I encourage Maine residents to make a statement for Maine’s better future by voting Yes on Question 1 on July 14. And our governor should release the funds for the project as quickly as possible. It is more important than ever.
Bev Uhlenhake of Brewer is a candidate for Maine Senate District 8.