Abraham Lincoln never tweeted out his views, but he did say this: “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but can not do at all — or can not so well do — for themselves … .”

It was 1854, but he might have been talking today about rural broadband.

We are well into the third decade of widespread internet use, making high-speed access a near necessity for communication, commerce and education. But the networks that deliver these valuable resources are not evenly distributed.

Some big cities are well served with high-speed internet, often with competing vendors to drive down prices. But many rural communities don’t have even one provider, leaving residents and businesses out in the cold. The big companies don’t bother going to the places where there isn’t enough population density for them to recoup their investment. That’s why a rural state like Maine is rated as having among the worst internet service in the country.

It’s clearly a situation where the people, as expressed through the free market, are not doing for themselves what needs to be done. In Lincoln’s view, that makes it a legitimate job for government.

Selfishly, big internet service providers are trying to stop that from happening. They are using their influence with state legislatures to prevent local governments from setting up municipal broadband companies to bring internet service to places where big guys won’t go. A model bill, that was drafted by the corporate-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council, has already passed in several states, putting legal and regulatory obstacles in the way of local governments that try to give their residents the infrastructure they need.

So, we support a bill now before Congress that would prevent states from buckling to this pressure. Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree from Maine’s 1st District is a co-sponsor, and we hope Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, from the state’s more-rural 2nd District, will also sign on. This should not be a partisan issue.

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture how this would affect Maine. Just a year ago, a version of ALEC’s legislation was introduced in our Legislature. It was sponsored by ALEC’s Maine co-chairman, state Rep. Nate Wadsworth, R-Hiram, but it got such a strong negative reaction that even he didn’t vote for it.

The bill’s backers say they are trying to protect municipalities from getting in over their heads with a complex enterprise, but towns and regions already work with quasi-governmental agencies that deliver power, water and even phone service. There is no reason to think that they can’t handle internet service.

It is outrageous that businesses that don’t want to serve these communities would stand in the way of the locals doing it for themselves. If Lincoln could tweet, it’s easy to imagine what he might write.


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