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Dana Connors is president and CEO of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
The biggest obstacle to making sure that more people in Maine can benefit from high-speed internet isn’t a lack of wires or the ability to connect to a service provider.
It’s that too many people can’t afford to bring high-speed internet into their homes or they do not have the skills to feel comfortable in a digital world or even see why it’s relevant.
Fifteen percent of Maine households don’t have high-speed internet in their homes, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Many of them simply do not have the money to pay for the service or they are not online because they don’t know how to or believe that they need to be.
This tracks with national trends. Of those American households that don’t have high-speed internet, 75 percent of them don’t because they can’t afford it or feel like they don’t know enough about how to use it to make high-speed internet worthwhile, according to a recent nonprofit study.
Regardless of the reason, folks without broadband are missing out.
For older Mainers or for those who are ill, broadband and telemedicine means a doctor or other health care provider can be just a few minutes away.
For small businesses, new markets are opened, new partnerships are possible and collaboration can happen when inspiration strikes.
And for families, it means kids can continue learning even during the worst of times.
Broadband internet can be a lifesaving, life enriching, business growing necessity. But too many people are just not connected. That’s why the most important thing we can do is connect them quickly by addressing the root causes.
Thankfully, the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included a provision called the Affordable Connectivity Program. The idea is pretty straightforward. The law provides up to $30 a month for families who are at or below 200 percent of the poverty line for internet service.
Nearly a quarter of Maine people (23 percent) are eligible for the program. What is needed now is a concerted effort to make sure people know about the opportunity and can get connected.
To date, enrollment numbers show that only about 10 percent of eligible Mainers have signed up. Families are leaving money on the table that they could be using to make their lives better.
Further, there is federal grant funding available to spread the word about the connectivity program and provide the educational support to help people learn how to navigate the internet and recognize all it has to offer. Our leaders should be looking for ways to expand digital literacy and skills training for folks who need it.
I understand why there’s a focus on government-owned networks, but encouraging government-owned networks to own and operate broadband does not encourage public-private partnerships, and in the Maine State Chamber of Commerce’s opinion, this is the best way to expand broadband. Furthermore, government-owned networks do not have any guardrails in place to protect against overbuilding of the current infrastructure that exists, and if we are not working together and instead are overbuilding existing networks, that poses a risk to our federal money that has been invested into Maine for broadband expansion.
Even more, they fail to address the root causes of the problem; Mainers who can’t afford access or know how to get connected.
There’s no question that there are places in Maine that need investment in broadband infrastructure, and in those places, government and providers should work together to connect every home and business. But in most places, the quickest way to get folks online is by taking on affordability and digital literacy directly.
Allowing the government to fund and build new networks is slow, costly and won’t do anything to connect people who simply can’t afford the service that’s right outside their homes or know how to use it — which we know drives the lack of connectivity in Penobscot and Hancock counties, where 99 percent of households have access to three or more broadband internet providers.
Everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of high-speed internet. The best way to accomplish that goal is also the simplest — help those who can’t afford it to sign up for the Affordable Connectivity Program and promote programs that will teach Mainers the skills they need to get connected.