It’s probably safe to say few of us think about electricity until our power goes out. It just works. It didn’t start that way. Last century, electricity was a luxury. A few companies controlled the wires, making profits bringing electricity to urban businesses and wealthy residents. Families on farms couldn’t have hot plates and washing machines, as companies decided electrifying rural areas was not profitable. It wasn’t until 1935, when the Rural Electrification Administration wrested control of electricity from these companies that rural communities accessed low-cost loans and assistance, and local cooperatives and municipalities launched community-based electricity programs.

This pandemic has uncovered a poor internet infrastructure and a profound digital divide. To solve today’s connectivity problem, we must learn from the story of U.S. electrification.   Sam72/Shutterstock.com

This pandemic has uncovered a poor internet infrastructure and a profound digital divide. To solve today’s connectivity problem, we must learn from the story of U.S. electrification. For residents and businesses to thrive, the internet needs to be fast, reliable and affordable. We need high-speed connectivity giving us unfettered ability to work and live remotely. Maine must have a bold vision, and commit to fast and affordable wired and wireless connectivity for all residents and businesses. We must take steps to motivate young people to stay and attract people to move here.

How broadband will be harnessed for economic and social benefit must go far beyond what we can imagine today. Picture a child anywhere in Maine who remotely controls a high-resolution microscope at a top university, excited about biology. Or a young adult apprentice using augmented reality to connect hands-on with an expert hundreds of miles away. Imagine an older adult having medical issues monitored in the comfort of their home, connecting virtually to a nurse.

National telecommunication companies have little incentive to ensure affordable broadband in rural and low-income areas. Allowed to be monopolies, they have failed us. We need fiber to carry the rivers of data for use to work, live and thrive. The pipes they use, copper and cable, are mere garden hoses to meet our needs. Their trickles of connectivity and predatory pricing – bundles and special offers, 12-month discounts and now wireless packages – are unaffordable to many and, even if paid for, won’t get us what we need. Is 5G our answer? 5G still needs fiber infrastructure and is no substitute for broadband.

The Federal Communications Commission set the definition of broadband at a speed of 25 megabits per second, or Mbps, download (pulling content from the internet) and 3 Mbps upload (pushing content to the internet). Today, this speed is insufficient for work or school or health care, especially when several people live at home. We haven’t applied the lessons of electrification – this time in the form of high-capacity fiber.

Connectivity is a national problem that has local solutions. From Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Sandy, Oregon, municipalities, co-ops and public-private partnerships have created workable models where broadband is affordable and personal service is the norm. In countries such as Sweden, Japan and South Korea, connectivity has largely been solved. Their residents don’t think about the internet; it just works. Maine has the expertise and creativity needed for successful models and robust broadband deployment, that is already demonstrated in localities such as Islesboro, Calais and Baileyville. We need much more. You can help.

One critical step is for Maine to chart internet quality throughout the state. The FCC relies on data from internet service providers, and they are not accurate. These data say there is high-speed broadband when it is not true. Correct data are needed, and you can play a role. The Maine Broadband Coalition is crowd-sourcing information on their website. If you visit www.mainebroadbandcoalition.org and run the speed test or share that service isn’t available, you can give greater voice to areas with poor connectivity, and help guide policy and investment. Help Maine achieve broadband access and equity by sharing the quality of your internet so we can develop local solutions for an exciting and networked future.


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