Functional and forward-thinking infrastructure is essential for economic success in the 21st century economy, especially in a geographically large but sparsely populated state such as Maine. We compete in a global economy where goods, services, talent and capital can flow anywhere. Because of that modern reality, making sure Maine has high-speed, high-capacity and far-reaching broadband networks throughout the state is a basic, but important, building block that will underpin much-needed economic growth and job creation.

The equation is simple: Continued investment in broadband will lead to an acceleration of economic benefit for our state.

In thinking about the future of broadband in Maine, it’s important to understand the tools that Mainers currently have. We are fortunate to have the 1,100-mile statewide fiber optic network called the Three Ring Binder, a dark fiber backbone stretching from Kittery to Fort Kent to Calais, creating three rings to encompass western, northern and Downeast Maine. This fiber optic network acts like an interstate highway. Carriers and service providers can lease this fiber (like paying a toll to drive the interstate) and then build “off-ramps” to towns, businesses and residents. Because of the robust nature of the Three Ring Binder project, these “off-ramps” provide high-speed broadband connections that rival those anywhere in the world.

The town of Rockport used a Three Ring Binder connection to build a town-owned gigabit fiber optic network to its downtown businesses, and this pioneering approach has gained national attention. Other Maine cities and town, including Islesboro, Sanford and South Portland, are taking similar steps to invest in broadband infrastructure. They have learned from cities such as Chattanooga and Kansas City, where high-speed networks have spurred economic growth, creating thousands of jobs with large companies and smaller start-ups alike.

Rockport’s recent success highlights the stark contrast and real challenges that exist for the rest of Maine, where just 20 percent of the state’s addresses have access to broadband speeds that meet the state’s minimum definition of broadband: 10 megabits per second symmetric.

In January, the ConnectME authority, a quasi-state organization tasked with overseeing Maine’s broadband build-out, made Maine a national leader by recognizing that upload speeds — the rate at which a user can send information back to the Internet — are just as important as download speeds. Slow upload speeds make it difficult for workers to work remotely, for an architect to send design files to an engineer, or a medical technician to send X-rays to a doctor in a neighboring city.

ConnectME’s maps of the new standard show that lack of access to broadband is not just a problem for rural Maine.

We are thrilled to see so many lawmakers, from Aroostook County to York County, recognizing the importance of broadband to Maine’s economic future. We believe that multiple ideas and approaches will elevate the conversation and help lawmakers craft a solution that best suits Mainers.

As the Democratic House assistant leader and the Republican Senate leader, we have developed a plan to meet this need. Our legislation builds on the energy and enthusiasm at the local level to build a policy that will thoughtfully plan broadband expansion in the state and lay the groundwork for the investment we need to compete. We believe that by helping municipalities identify the broadband resources they have, describe the broadband they want and craft a plan to get there we can continue to break down constraints that have limited economic growth in our state for so long.

The solutions will look different from town to town, but through this process, we’ll learn what works so that we can replicate it in communities across the state. We will build a Maine that has the broadband infrastructure it needs to provide good-paying jobs no matter where people choose to live and work.

No matter what shape our policy solutions ultimately take, here’s what we know for sure: Maine’s competitive economic future requires a 21st century broadband solution. We built our country and our state on great minds, talented labor and a work ethic that kept us on the cutting edge of great innovation. We became successful by speeding up around the bends in the road, when everyone else was slowing down.

Now, by creating the conditions that will bring our broadband infrastructure into the 21st century, we have the chance to tap into an opportunity to create good jobs with strong wages as we merge onto the fast Internet superhighway in Maine.

Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, is the House majority whip, and Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, is the Senate majority leader.

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