Bill Nemitz: Are you not happy with your Internet? Now is the time to do something

Looking for some good news? Here are a few: With federal and state funding, Maine currently has $ 150 million to bring high-speed Internet to places that don’t have it and to improve service to those that do.

How do you get a piece of this action? Here’s a clue: you repeat, you lose.

“The communities that are ready are the ones that are going to get the most investment,” Andrew Butcher said in an interview Tuesday – the same day Gov. Janet Mills announcement she would appoint him to head the new Maine Connectivity Authority.

For Butcher, leading the new state agency is a welcome progression from his work as Chairman of the Maine Broadband Coalition and Director of Innovation and Resilience for the Greater Portland Council of Governments, to that of Landscape Supervisor at broadband of Maine.

But it is also a huge challenge. Money alone – $ 21 million from state and $ 129 million in federal pandemic relief funds – won’t magically meet Maine’s goal of expanding a service quickly. broadband adequate to all corners of the state. You also can’t just sit back and assume that the fiber optic cable will automatically find its way to your corner of the country, your road, and, hallelujah, your living room.

You – and your community – are going to have to work for this.

For several years, the expansion of broadband has been at the center of the concerns of organizations ranging from Greater Portland Council of Governments and the ConnectMaine Authority to the Island Institute and Maine National Center for Digital Equity.

At the same time, local communities joined forces under banners such as West Maine in the County of Oxford and the five cities Southwestern Waldo County Broadband Coalition to get a head start in attracting broadband to parts of the state where robust internet access might otherwise be no more than wishful thinking.

Note: According to state estimates, up to 83,000 households in Maine, or 15% of the state, do not have high-speed internet access. And a much larger number, while connected, are well below current standards for upload and download speeds.

Now with the Maine Connectivity Authority about to start allocate the long-awaited influx of public funds – it can provide grants to businesses and communities, negotiate contracts with Internet service providers, even own its own infrastructure – a big question looms: with the cost of expanding the Internet broadband across the state of Maine estimated at $ 600 million, who benefit from funding that, although unprecedented so far, covers less than a third of the state’s needs?

Who is planning it.

“Start anywhere,” replied Kendra Jo Grindle, senior director of community development for the Island Institute, when I asked her last week what her advice would be for communities that have taken little or no action to establish or improve their Internet access.

“Start by having conversations, start by looking at all the resources that luckily exist in Maine,” Grindle said. ” Go for it. For those who aren’t starting to plan and have the conversation, providers aren’t just going to show up at your door one day and build for you.

The Island Institute has a long history of working with island communities in Maine to connect them to the rest of the world through fiber-optic cables and short-range microwave relay towers. An example: after four years of planning, Islesboro activated its community owned high speed broadband system in 2018. Funded by a $ 3.8 million bond approved by local voters in 2016, it now serves around 90% of islanders, who pay an annual subscription of just $ 370.

Building on these efforts and those of other islands, the Island Institute now offers a step-by-step guide to help communities navigate from non-existent or inadequate broadband access to affordable connectivity for all.

Note the word affordable. It must be at the heart of any plan, both to ensure equal Internet access for all members of a community and to achieve a “subscription rate”, or percentage of subscribed households, which ultimately determines whether a local system is economically viable.

Susan Corbett is the Founder and Executive Director of the National Digital Equity Center, located in Wiscasset and Machias. Long a supporter of fair and equal access to the Internet, she sees the COVID-19 pandemic, despite all the devastation it has caused, as a turning point to open people’s eyes to the possibilities and obstacles to Internet service. quality home.

“The pandemic has shown who can participate and who cannot in an online society,” Corbett said in an interview. It has also played directly into the centre’s mission to bridge what it calls the “digital divide” in Maine and beyond through educating those who struggle with surfing the Internet and advocating for those who struggle to navigate the Internet. who don’t have the means to access it in the first place.

Another example: In one of its “deep dives” into the community’s demographics to assess its digital landscape, Corbett said, the equity center found that 25% of Searsport homes had annual family income. of $ 10,000 or less.

“So if Searsport is considering doing a fiber-to-the-home project, it’s extremely important to deal with affordability,” said Corbett. “Because what they don’t want to do is leave those 25% of households behind. “

There are many possibilities. A community can strive to build its own system and hire a vendor to operate it. Or he could contract with one provider to handle everything, just like municipalities in Maine now do with cable TV providers. It could negotiate grants to help some foot the monthly bill, or join neighboring communities to improve bargaining power and establish an economy of scale.

But now is the time to do something about it. A starting point could be the third Maine Summit on Broadband, an online conference scheduled for November 18-19. Organized by the Maine Broadband Coalition under the title “We Can Make It From Here”, it will examine the finances of broadband expansion, the need for equitable and affordable access, and a digital future that is already. on our doorstep.

Closer to home, you could consult the internet speed test, where you can enter your home address and view your download and upload speeds at any time. You can also click a map showing the over 29,000 tests done so far – you might be surprised how far Maine has to go when it comes to full statewide connectivity.

As Butcher, the incoming broadband czar in Maine, noted, “there is a real urgency” for communities to get up to speed as soon as possible.

“Now is the time to prepare. The resources that are coming in are not enough, ”said Butcher. “Where there is demand indicates where the infrastructure is being built. And the demand comes from equipped, engaged and informed communities leading a process. “

Let the race begin.

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