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Rural and Island Internet Frustrations
AUGUSTA - Maine's economic growth is suffering from lack of high-speed Internet access in many rural areas of the state, claimed supporters of two bills aimed at improving such access. "If Maine is to attract more businesses, then we must improve and expand access to high-speed Internet services," Sen. Lynn Bromley, D-South Portland, told the Legislature's Utilities and Energy Committee during public hearings on the bills Tuesday. "This is a requisite and not a luxury as we move forward."
At present, high-speed Internet access is available in those limited parts of Maine served by cable television, fiber-optic cables, or digital subscriber phone lines, known as DSLs.
One of the bills discussed Tuesday proposes a study to determine if municipalities could act as Internet service providers in areas where high-speed Internet service is now lacking.
Bromley, who co-chairs the Legislature's Business, Research and Economic Development Committee, sponsored the bill, which she said would complement another study on rural access announced earlier this year by Gov. John Baldacci.
"We have often talked in the BRED committee about what we can do to get access in rural areas of the state," she said "We need to develop solutions."
Rep. Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, introduced the second bill, which would create the Maine Broadband Advisory Council and would expand the authority of the Public Utilities Commission to regulate line-sharing agreements and establish right-of-way rules.
"As this committee knows well, the Internet has become a key part of the modern day work world," she said. "Our new economy, with the addition of the Internet, has allowed people to work anytime from almost anywhere."
While studies rank the state high in access to the Internet, Pingree said access in rural areas is still very limited.
She pointed out that though the PUC reports all 10 of the communities she represents are "covered," less than 50 percent of the homes in her district can obtain high-speed access, according to constituents and utilities.
Typically in Maine only more urban areas with concentrated populations sufficient to warrant investment in such technology as fiber optics or television cables now have high-speed Internet access. Even DSL, which can be provided over regular phone lines, can be offered only near a phone company's switching center. Some rural areas are getting service by using wireless or satellite technology, but both come with limits on capacity and location, and can be expensive.
That lack of affordable high-speed access hurts Maine competitiveness, say business experts.
University of Maine business professor Nory Jones said businesses still performing such basic tasks as sending out paper invoices by mail are at a competitive disadvantage. She estimates that preparing paper invoices, mailing them and following up, costs $15 per transaction, while using the Internet reduces that cost to about 80 cents a transaction.
Jones said there are many examples of businesses being transformed by the use of technology and the Internet. Dial-up connections are slow to transfer data while broadband access allows much fast transfer of data. For example, a file that may take several minutes to download on a dial-up connection can be downloaded nearly instantly with a broadband connection.
For a business, she says, time is money.
"If they are going to compete in this economy, they need to be as efficient as possible," Jones said during a telephone interview.
During Tuesday's committee hearings, representatives from the Public Advocate's office, the Public Utilities Commission, and the Department of Economic and Community Development all endorsed studying ways to improve rural access.
Dan Breton, a lobbyist for Verizon, said the telephone company does not oppose a study, but is concerned about the implications for regulated utilities competing with nonregulated Internet service providers, including those that might be operated by a city or town.
"If we lose half of all our customers in a downtown area, it's going to be hard for us to fund pushing out services in the more rural areas of a community," he said. "The same would be true for a cable company."
Other traditional Internet service providers also raised concerns about the possibility of the private sector being forced to compete with systems owned by municipalities.
Bromley and Pingree both said they are concerned about the private sector being able to provide affordable access in rural areas because of the high per user cost inherent in rural areas. Bromley said it might take some sort of subsidy such as tax breaks or low-cost financing to make access a reality. -Mal Leary
For further information, contact:
Rep. Hannah Pingree, 867-2336
Casey Johnson, Legislative Aide, 287-1430
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