(TNS) — When Felica Bell moved from Livermore Falls to a main street in New Sharon a few years ago, she figured she could just switch the address on her Time-Warner cable and, presto, she’d be online again.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Bell said Friday she learned she now lives four miles from the closest cable so her new internet options were a whole lot more limited: satellite service or simply using her cellphone. She chose the cellphone because it was “the best of the worst.”
It’s hard for her now to use the internet the way she once did because of data usage limits that force her to plan if she wants to stream a movie or the like. “It’s annoying,” Bell said, and she worries that as her son gets older, it could become a serious problem.
Bell is not alone.
The stay-at-home edicts at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring made it obvious that thriving communities need broadband access.
Nothing screamed “left behind” more than images of children trying to do classwork by connecting to a Study-From-Car website in a town where only the library or a closed school provided WiFi.
Yet for tens of thousands of Mainers — and scores of the small towns where they live — wider internet access is simply impossible.
Lacking fast and always-on internet, students can’t easily study remotely, adults can’t smoothly work from home, patients can’t take advantage of telehealth, and businesses cut off from customers struggle and sometimes fail.
“Now we’re home and Netflix isn’t all we’re doing anymore,” said Peggy Schaffer, executive director of the ConnectMaine Authority.
“The internet is so wrapped up in what we do daily,” Bell said, and it’s only growing in importance.
With a $15 million broadband bond question on the ballot Tuesday, voters will get a chance to decide whether to put more money behind the effort to bring high-speed internet to more of rural Maine.
It appears that Maine is the first state to ask voters to endorse a measure specifically aimed at funding greater broadband access.
Gov. Janet Mills said recently that broadband “is critical to spur innovation, create opportunity, provide telehealth and remote learning, and build a strong, diverse economy — especially in rural Maine.”
“The COVID crisis has highlighted the importance of a good high-speed connection for remote work, and supporting small businesses,” she said, calling its expansion “one of the highest priorities of my administration.”
If approved, the bond measure is expected to help attract at least $30 million in additional financing to help extend broadband service to more of the underserved towns throughout western, northern and coastal Maine.
Given that ConnectMaine has doled out about $1 million annually since its creation 14 years ago to help spur more broadband access, the bond issue is hardly chump change. It equals the amount the agency has had in all of its previous history.
Yet to finish the job of connecting Maine, leaving aside people whose homes are so remote that there is no practical way to reach them, will cost $600 million or more, experts said.
The state’s planning process figures that bringing fiber optic lines to Oxford and Franklin counties alone requires $140 million.
But taxpayers can breathe easy. Plans call for getting the job done with a lot of private investment to cover a good share of the expense.
Experts differ on just how to get the job done, but every study agrees that digital access is critical for communities to flourish.
“It is the economic tool of this country,” Schaffer said. “People are desperate for connectivity.”
Minot Town Administrator Danielle Loring said she gets calls regularly from the many people in town who lack access asking what officials are doing about it.
“Especially with the recent events of the pandemic, home schooling and people working from home, distance learning and so on and so forth, it really highlighted how inadequate the services are,” Loring said.
The state’s broadband action plan says high-speed internet “is now a necessary asset to attract and retain businesses and residents in Maine,” but most of the state’s rural communities lack access.
“This limits their ability to grow, innovate, support seniors staying in their homes, develop a strong workforce and create an environment to attract business growth,” the report said.
In short, without access to the internet, much of the state has little hope of seeing much economic growth.
“We need stronger internet access across the state. We cannot be passive about this. We need to take action now,” Larry Barker of Machias Savings Bank said during a Zoom rally sponsored by the Yes on 1 For Better Internet Campaign.
Providing better access is an idea so uncontroversial that Maine’s congressional delegation, governor and the candidates who want to replace them all support more efforts to wire the state as swiftly as possible.
There is no organized opposition to the bond measure.
When Cait Fitzgerald and her husband moved to “a big farm off a dirt road” in Norway with their five dogs, it seemed like the perfect spot for them.
They wanted “to live in the middle of nowhere,” she said Friday, and they succeeded.
But it turned out that one drawback of living two-and-a-half miles off the main road is that nobody had any interest in running a cable line out to their property to provide high-speed internet access.
She said they have satellite internet and cellphone coverage, but she hits her monthly data cap on the satellite service in one day. Cellular service isn’t much better, she said.
“It’s basically like not having internet,” Fitzgerald said.
What it means in practical terms is that it takes her five or 10 minutes to attach a photograph to an email. It means they can, if they’re lucky, watch something on Netflix as long as they can stand repeated buffering throughout a movie.
Since Fitzgerald is a professional photographer who has to deal with online galleries and the like, she said she has to go to the library or a cafe or somewhere with internet to do her work. It’s far from ideal, she said.
Missing out on decent internet “kind of dampens the dream” of living in rural Maine, Fitzgerald said.
Most people in Maine have access to high-speed internet through a patchwork of private companies that typically offer service for a monthly fee.
But in more thinly populated areas, stretching along about half the roads in the state, there isn’t any service.
It simply hasn’t been worth the cost of $35,000 per mile to stretch existing lines farther into rural areas because it doesn’t make financial sense for private companies to do so.
They’ll never make a profit given the small number of people who might pay for the service.
Since broadband is not a public utility, though some argue it should be, “there is no requirement for anybody to bring anyone anything” to connect homes to the web, Schaffer said.
ConnectMaine figures that at least 83,000 households have been left out as a consequence and probably many more.
Since Maine has about 520,000 households, that means that about one in six of them lacks access. That doesn’t take into account households that can’t afford available service, which is a different, if related, issue.
Taking the wider view, Maine is among the worst states in America for fast internet access.
There are lots of ratings out there, but two fairly reliable ones, from US News and from BroadbandNow Research, each cite only a handful of states with worse showings.
These days, most every internet connection is some sort of broadband.
Not too many people still rely on the old telephone line dial-ups with screeching modems that introduced many now-older Mainers to what was once touted as the World Wide Web.
Broadband consists mostly of cable, DSL and fiber optic lines capable of transporting many signals simultaneously. Satellite signals can also serve some, though they are slower.
Fiber optic lines, still uncommon for home users, are by far the fastest alternative. Such lines make up the backbone of Maine’s internet infrastructure, the so-called Three Ring Binder that serves as a sort of hidden superhighway for digital signals.
Generally, speed is measured by how quickly digital data can be uploaded or downloaded.
The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as offering at least 25 megabits per second for download speed and three megabits per second for uploading.
BroadbandNow says it’s enough to be able to stream movies on one or two devices without buffering, load most websites without delay or play online games without a lag time.
Even so, that’s not especially quick.
For multiple users and multiple devices, commonplace in many households, experts say speeds ought to be at least four times as fast.
Most people with broadband can handle it.
Federal reports show that 85 percent or more of Americans use connections that deliver at least 250 megabits per second, typically from cable television providers that use fiber and coaxial cable to reach customers’ homes.
Systems that offer just a fraction of that typical speed are already outdated even if they technically qualify as high-speed, experts say.
But download speed isn’t even the biggest problem in Maine, Schaffer said.
For work and telemedicine, she said, upload speeds are crucial as well. And they are much slower.
“That is the biggest hole in Maine,” Schaffer said.
The state’s broadband action plan this year said that “download is how the world talks to Maine. Upload is how Maine talks to the world.”
“For high-speed broadband to have the potential to transform workforce development, education, health care, and communities, it is critical for upload speed to be adequate to meet the demands of Maine’s economy,” the report said.
As mentioned earlier, since the creation of ConnectMaine in 2006 the state has spent roughly $1 million a year to spur more broadband.
The money, which mostly comes from a little-known phone tax, has been tapped to support communities that pull together a plan to provide coverage.
“We didn’t have a lot of money so we tried to figure out the best use for it,” Schaffer said. “We’re interested in long-term solutions.”
“Communities, whether a single town, a group of towns, a county or some other compilation, must be firmly in the driver’s seat in determining their own broadband destiny,” the state plan said.
“These community plans will rely on public/private partnerships to optimize the private and public-sector investment,” it said.
The proposal calls for the state to provide 25 percent of the cost of broadband expansions in rural Maine, with the private sector, the federal government and local communities covering the rest.
The plan calls for completing the program by 2025 by pumping $200 million from the state over the next five years, a total that dwarfs next week’s request for voters to endorse $15 million.
Where the rest of the money would come from remains uncertain.
“ConnectMaine understands that an average investment of $40 million over the next 5 years is a significant lift, even though the need and projects are there right now to successfully use this level of funding to bring connectivity to rural Maine,” the agency’s action plan said.
The agency has been funding public/private partnerships that put together plans to deliver affordable high-speed service to communities that rallied around the proposal.
According to the state plan, more than 50 communities have gone through the process and are waiting for enough funding to move forward.
“Each community has gone about it a different way,” Schaffer said, and some, including Franklin County, have done “a great job.”
Another alternative method the agency intends to try would seek providers willing to fill smaller unserved areas.
A study released in March by researchers at the James H. and Mary B. Quello Center at Michigan State University found that students who don’t have access to the internet at home, even if they can use a cellphone there, lag behind peers who have broadband.
It found students who are cut off from the web “perform lower on a range of metrics, including digital skills, homework completion and grade point average. They are also less likely to intend on attending college or university.”
“A deficit in digital skills compounds many of the inequalities in access and contributes to students performing lower on standardized tests such as the SAT, and being less interested in careers related to science, technology, engineering, and math,” the study found.
Researchers studying rural Michigan determined that those without internet access at home, even if they have a smartphone, have digital skills that trail their peers by several academic years.
Taking a look at the bigger picture, the researchers said that “better connectivity is associated with clear advantages for school performance and broader outcomes, including the development of career interests that may have lifelong consequences.”
“These advantages are not available to those with poor connectivity,” they said, adding that “individuals, communities and society” wind up “worse off than what would be possible under conditions of better connectivity.”
They said that places with poor connectivity pay a price for their lack of access.
The study said, too, that the downsides “will grow over time, because many of the emerging job opportunities will be in occupations that require digital skills and high-quality connectivity.”
“Even service industries with a very high human component, such as medical service and care for the elderly, will increasingly be dependent on high-quality connectivity. Communities without proper connectivity therefore face the risk of seeing the effects of their lack of high-performance broadband amplified in a vicious cycle of compounding disadvantages,” researchers said.
Any eligible Mainer can vote Tuesday on the two statewide bond questions.
In addition to the broadband question, there is a $105 million transportation bond on the ballot to help pay for roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure.
Voters routinely back the state’s transportation bonds.
There is also a contested statewide U.S. Senate primary for Democrats and a 2nd District congressional primary for Republicans.
Many local school budgets are also on ballots as well as a smattering of other issues. The polls close at 8 p.m.
©2020 the Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.