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John Dougherty is vice president and general manager of Mission Broadband. Dwayne Young is co-chair of the Greater East Grand Broadband Task Force.
The urgent need to bring broadband access to every Mainer has become undeniable during the pandemic. High-speed internet is no longer a luxury — it is a vital utility for economic development, education and health care.
Both federal and state lawmakers have recognized this, and as a result, millions of dollars are set to be funneled to Maine to address the issue in the coming months. While this funding will be critical, simply throwing money at the problem will not be enough to bridge Maine’s digital divide. We need to do more to prepare our communities, many of which are not ready for this windfall.
Over the last year, the issue of broadband expansion has earned widespread bipartisan support in our state. In July 2020, Maine voters overwhelmingly passed a first-of-its-kind $15 million bond to provide funding for high-speed internet infrastructure projects. Maine lawmakers have approved legislation to create a new quasi-government agency to facilitate broadband to the more than 83,000 households that currently lack adequate broadband. Gov. Janet Mills is expected to sign the bill.
At the federal level, the recently passed American Rescue Plan Act contains more than $10 billion for broadband, and Maine’s portion of this funding is expected to exceed $100 million. Additional federal funding also looms on the horizon in future infrastructure packages.
Much attention has been placed on these massive funding figures, and deservedly so; they represent the most significant public investment in broadband to date and have the potential to be transformational for Maine. But funding is only one step towards closing the state’s broadband gap. Local governments and supporting community members still need to generate public support for the project among constituents, which could be an unexpected challenge.
Although many people want and understand the need for broadband expansion, there are still a surprising amount who remain skeptical, even as the pandemic has exposed its importance. In Mission Broadband’s work to bring equitable access to communities across Maine, we have encountered questions from more than a few residents who are hesitant about broadband. Some have concerns about how the costs will impact them personally, like tax increases. Others, like some older residents in rural areas, might not see the need for internet connection because they have never had it and might not understand how to use it. And in some cases, people actually appreciate the lack of connectivity and solitude that accompanies living off the grid in a remote corner of the state.
This skepticism could be sufficient to prevent broadband expansion projects from coming to fruition. To access grant money, local governments will likely need to match at least a portion of public funding, either through a bond issue or by reallocating revenue. While the percentage of the match might be small, its funding might still need to be put on a local ballot for a vote, depending on the town and its statutes. This would require the support of a majority of the community, meaning that even if some residents and elected officials are enthusiastic about broadband, securing funding for new fiber infrastructure is not a certainty. The initiative could still be rejected once the question is put to a vote, leaving some towns stuck on the wrong side of the broadband gap.
To prevent this scenario, we should collectively be spending more time educating our communities on the benefits of broadband, as well as evaluating and targeting community-specific broadband requirements. Education and public outreach are foundational in this effort. Local governments, broadband committees and others who are passionate about broadband can engage in a conversation with constituents and neighbors, respectfully listen to their concerns and help them throughout the process – and convey just how much a broadband expansion project could make a positive impact.
Maine is approaching a watershed moment for broadband. With millions of dollars in potential funding soon to become available, we have an opportunity to begin closing the digital divide and bring every community up to speed in the 21st century. We must do a better job of preparing our local governments and residents for it, even if they are skeptical. The future of broadband expansion in our state starts with an informed community.