A Middle Eastern proverb holds that the best time to have planted an orchard was 50 years ago. The second best time is now.
With the stay-in-place orders associated with COVID-19, we have experienced the inadequacies of our broadband service in rural Maine. High-speed internet is needed to educate our children. It is also how our businesses operate and how we contact our doctors. Unfortunately, too many students who do not have internet service at home are doing their schoolwork in libraries and businesses’ parking lots.
This is not true for electricity and telephone service. The Maine Public Utilities Commission was created in 1913 and it has consistently passed regulations to make those services available to all. But broadband was not designated as an essential service that needed to be regulated as a public utility. There are two reasons why this is true.
The first is just lack of awareness on the part of legislators and regulators. The World Wide Web jumped from the laboratories of research universities and the military to our homes and businesses with astonishing speed. While its importance escaped the notice of government officials, the profit potential was seized upon by big telecommunication companies.
The second reason why broadband is not a public utility is the theory that competition will provide everyone with service at the lowest price. This is a dubious argument even in cities, but it is patently flawed in rural areas where homes are spread far apart. For example, under the 2018 franchise agreement with the Town of Addison, Spectrum is only required to provide service where there are 20 homes per linear mile.
It is probably too late to expect that broadband service will ever come under the purview of the Maine PUC. This should have been done in the 1980s when the broadband systems were being built.
But now is the second best time to act. What can we do?
First, we must vote yes on the $15-million rural broadband bond that is on the July 14 ballot. Even if you are an unenrolled voter and cannot vote for primary candidates, you can vote on the two bond issues.
Second, we must demand that our elected representatives on all levels take action to expand rural broadband.
Third, we have to recognize that this problem is not going to be resolved by the big cable and telecommunication companies. If it were profitable to expand coverage to everyone, it would have been done already.
Fourth, we should not look for a technological solution to provide broadband service to rural Maine. 5G delivers fantastic cell service including data, but the towers to relay the signals must be placed so close together that it is too expensive to expand beyond urban density. Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite system offers the best hope, but the company is vague as to speed of service, cost of the receivers and whether they can get enough satellites in orbit to fully deliver on Musk’s promises of affordable internet to all.
Fifth, towns should form committees to work with ConnectMaine, the state agency tasked with expanding broadband to rural areas. We have had great successes in Washington County expanding broadband service. Calais, Baileyville and Roque Bluffs have used public funds with federal and state grants to expand fiber optic cable throughout the towns. Hopefully, Alexander will be joining this list. These cable systems allow homes within the towns to connect with the internet provider of their choice at incredible speed.
Lastly, on this and a lot of other pending issues, we should stop wringing our hands and lament the lost opportunities in the past. We must act now so in the future our children and grandchildren will be able to eat the fruit from the trees we have planted today.
Jeffrey Lovit lives in Addison and is a candidate for District 6 in the Maine Senate.