When I joined other Somerville residents at the recent Comprehensive Plan hearing to discuss what we thought would improve life in town over the next 10 years, we focused on what people look for when they contemplate moving.

The demographics for Somerville, with a population of 548, are changing, with the median age of its residents increasing 10 years in the past decade — a pretty dramatic shift. While the town may want to create an “aging-friendly” community, it also needs to promote factors that will help it attract and keep young families.

Certainly, quality schools (our kids attend a good elementary in neighboring Windsor), available housing and cheap land are all priorities. But all who attended the Comprehensive Plan hearing agreed that the most critical factor is reliable, fast Internet service, which is a struggle in our town. Without that, young families in the 21st century won’t even consider moving here.

It’s not like Somerville is out in the wilderness — it’s only about 15 miles from Augusta. However, we can’t get dial-up DSL broadband from Fairpoint because we do not have the appropriate equipment within distance limitations. We gaze upward longingly at Fairpoint’s high tech fiber optic lines running through (but not stopping in) our town to serve neighboring towns’ customers. We cannot even access cable TV because we are not populated densely enough.

Somerville obtained its first access to wireless broadband in 2011 through one of the first grants from ConnectME, which gives out grants each year to serve communities with poor or no Internet service. Midcoast Internet Solutions (now owned by GWI) worked with the town to gear up with repeaters, antennas, radios and routers to bounce signals into town from the coast. We were cruising up the on-ramp to the digital highway.

In four short years, however, the wireless equipment has aged and GWI is reluctant to invest more in an antiquated technology. Moreover, granite ledges and growth in local forests can obscure the Wi-Fi signal. Complaints about quality and the speed of service are heard frequently. Fiber optics are now the name of the game, and Somerville is no longer in the game.

We are not alone. Connect ME recently declared that 80 percent of Maine is unserved by high-speed Internet service (based on updated standards). Ookla, a company that ranks broadband system performance around the world, declared Maine dead last in average broadband speed. Somerville and many other Maine towns are frozen in a twilight zone of subpar service that one Bloomberg News reporter termed Third World.

Ironically, Maine has an innovative 1,100-mile fiber optic network — the “Three Ring Binder” — that is a statewide backbone of high-speed dark fiber. The challenge is for communities and local service providers to connect that “last mile” to the network when they do not have the infrastructure to do so.

Somerville and other rural towns cannot afford to lose growth opportunities that broadband may offer. Our beautiful bucolic settings could host telecommuters, entrepreneurs selling their wares through websites, students studying calculus online, or professionals linking with “cloud” networks. Even farms (a modest growth industry in our town) need good access to the Internet for marketing products and taking orders.

Here’s a real world example of the power of broadband: My son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren recently moved back to Maine to be with family. What enabled them to do so was broadband connectivity. My son retains his job as a mechanical engineer by telecommuting in Portland to his former office in Seattle. They chose Portland as their home for a wide range of reasons, connectivity being an important one.

Small towns need the boost of programs such as ConnectME or bond issues that promote public/private broadband solutions. Otherwise, there’s little incentive for carriers to hook up that “last mile” out to our rural homes and small businesses. Numerous bills are in the mix at the Legislature to do just that, and I urge policymakers to recognize the need to invest in this business infrastructure.

Or — here’s a thought. I grumped about the Cate Street/Millinocket tax break in my last column. Think about what the $16 million owed Cates in tax credits would buy us for improving connectivity for Maine communities and small businesses. Last year ConnectME gave out only $700,000 in grants.

Maine is the most rural of all states,according to the U.S. Census bureau. If we fail to find creative ways to connect our small towns with the digital highway, it will mean, as Sen. Angus King says, “an economic death sentence for a community that can’t get broadband.”

Lisa Miller, of Somerville, is a former legislator who served on the Health and Human Services and Appropriations and Financial Affairs committees.

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