From 1907 until 2014, East Millinocket was a booming paper mill town. In fact, the mill once covered 80 percent of the local tax base. But since 2014’s permanent shuttering of the mill, that tax burden has fallen onto the residents of our town. The town is involved with several projects to reduce that burden, and one of our top priorities is working with our neighboring towns to create an open-access fiber broadband network.
With this in mind, the board of selectmen of East Millinocket enthusiastically endorses a yes vote on Question 1, which would approve a $15 million bond for rural broadband with a $30 million match in federal funds.
Broadband is a driving force for any economy in the 21st century. A growing workforce sector in East Millinocket is employees who work from home. All of these jobs, from medical transcriptionist to call center worker, require high-speed broadband. In some cases, this either hasn’t been available or was so cost prohibitive that it was cheaper for the employee to drive 60 miles every day to their employer’s closest office in Bangor. We want to attract workers who are looking to live close to nature but still need some of the conveniences of a city to do so.
We have also seen over the past few months how important a reliable internet connection is for our student (and teacher!) population. The “ homework gap,” which is the difference between how a student is performing academically and how much better they could perform if they had reliable internet at home, became significantly wider this year.
Almost 70 percent of our students take part in the “free or reduced lunch” program at the school. With that level of poverty, it’s no wonder that so many parents can’t afford to sign a contract with an internet service provider. The competitive nature of an open-access fiber network would lower the service cost to our citizens and allow more families to purchase service.
Rural communities like ours also have a lack of healthcare services. While East Millinocket has a hospital 10 miles away and a walk-in clinic in town, we are not able to provide a wide enough range of services for our population. Most people have to travel to Bangor in order to see a doctor or to seek treatment for substance use disorder.
With broadband, our local healthcare providers could expand their use of telemedicine. While this wouldn’t solve every medical issue, it would greatly reduce the amount of trips to Bangor for our elderly residents and people who need to be connected to substance use disorder resources quickly.
East Millinocket, Millinocket, and Medway are currently working together to design a collaborative fiber network that will cover all three towns. We’ll have a completed engineering study in August and be able to go out to bid for construction of the network after that. Many other communities throughout the state have gotten to this point, but have had to ask the same question that we are now asking: How do we fund this project? Federal grants are highly competitive and most towns don’t meet their very specific requirements.
Question 1 would provide $45 million to towns that otherwise may not have access to funding. Rough estimates from last year showed that we could construct a universal fiber network that would cover all three of our towns for less than $5 million. That’s close to 10,000 residents and business owners that would have access to reliable high-speed internet. If that’s what $5 million can accomplish, imagine how many towns can be helped with $45 million.
Rural Maine provides so much for others. Our natural resources are used to make products that ship all over the world, and our landscape and activities attract visitors from thousands of miles away. We urge you to vote Yes on Question 1 to give rural Maine the connectivity it deserves.
Kyle Leathers is the vice chairman of the East Millinocket Board of Selectmen and a social studies teacher at Stearns Jr./Sr. High School in Millinocket.