Highly reliable, consistent high-speed internet might only be a dream to many rural Mainers, including older people trying to keep in touch with family during the pandemic.

State Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, is sponsoring a bill to expand high-speed internet in rural areas. Submitted photo

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, aims to make that dream come true over the next five years.

The bill calls for a $100 million bond that would leverage federal funding to help build the infrastructure that would expand broadband internet to 98% of rural households, Bennett said in a recent phone interview.

That is estimated to cost $600 million, he said.

“I expect a lot of federal money will be available if we have a plan in place,” Bennett said.

The Federal Communications Commission has only awarded $9 billion of the $20 billion available for broadband infrastructure around the country, he said.

AARP Maine, a member of the Maine Broadband Coalition, supports Bennett’s bill on behalf of its more than 200,000 members, State Director Lori Parham said.

AARP Maine State Director Lori Parham

“AARP cares about this issue for many reasons,” she said.

• Helping older adults age in place productively and safely.

• Enhancing access to telemedicine, civic engagement, friends and family, entertainment and online learning. These things would provide social interaction and help with health challenges.

• Helping family caregivers and children of all ages who need it for schooling.

“The COVID pandemic has shed an even brighter light on all of these issues,” Parham said.

She said widely available broadband would help businesses successfully serve neighbors and the country.

People ages 55-64 are the largest growing age group of entrepreneurs, she said.

Bennett also sees the legislation as a way to enhance social interaction.

“Obviously, in this time of pandemic, it’s important to see, talk with and have long, intimate conversations over the internet,” he said, especially for isolated people who “haven’t been hugged in a long time.”

And once the pandemic passes, widespread high-speed internet could help stanch the brain drain of young professionals leaving the state for jobs and “help people in Maine build futures here.”

Access to telehealth (remote doctor’s visits) is another factor for older Mainers, Bennett said.

“The ability of someone with mobility issues, getting along in years and who lives in a rural area, to look in the eye of a top doctor, is tremendously liberating and helpful and enlivening,” he said.

He said it’s unclear where exactly better internet is needed (“the data is very poor”) so the state would have to create a map — “drill right down to neighborhoods” — as the wiring and towers are installed.

Part of the problem with mapping is that the private companies that provide broadband are “highly reluctant” to share their data, Bennett said. They consider it proprietary (intellectual property) and “none of our business.”

But wiring the state for high-speed internet is in the public interest, he said.

“If (the companies) want to get public funds, they need to be cooperative,” he said.

He likened the project to rural electrification in the 1930s, when Congress passed an act to wire rural communities. Electricity was then common in urban areas but largely unavailable in rural places.

Bennett sees wiring rural areas for broadband as a nonpartisan issue that he hopes will be embraced by Democrats and Republicans in the Maine Legislature.

“Democracy itself is enhanced by high-speed internet,” he said.


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