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Broadband for Rural Maine
When it comes to major infrastructure development in this country, government has almost always played a role in getting to the last mile. In the 1930s, for example, while almost 90 percent of urban dwellers had electricity, only 10 percent of the rural population of this country did. It simply wasn't worth the cost for newly minted utility companies to extend their services beyond a tight urban range. That's when the federal government stepped in, and through its rural electrification program extended the benefits of electricity to farmers and other isolated residents of this country's vast reaches.
Despite charges of rampant socialism and unfair government competition with private enterprise, that extraordinary effort by government to deliver the benefits of electricity to America's margins is now seen as a prime example of the positive role government can play, and a watershed moment in this country's history.
Now, the Maine legislature is poised at a similar threshold. A 2005 MIT report concluded what many people intuitively understood: Communities in which broadband Internet access was available experienced more rapid growth in employment and the number of overall businesses. Similarly, those communities also were able to charge higher market rates for rental housing. In other words, broadband access makes good economic sense.
Yet in an echo of the 1930s, about 86 percent of Maine's population has access to high-speed Internet service, and 14% of the population remains stubbornly out of reach. That means that when companies are making the choice about where to locate, for example, they're unlikely to bring their economic activity to communities without broadband. Would-be rural entrepreneurs are hamstrung by lack of Internet speed. And the state's university system, which was purposely sited in rural settings, finds it difficult to offer researchers the speed they need. Likewise, industry experts say the Jackson Laboratory on Mt. Desert Island is facing serious issues because its broadband isn't fast enough. If ever there was an example of the "Two Maines," this is it.
This week lawmakers will debate the merits of a bill proposed by the governor, sponsored by Rep. Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, and supported unanimously in committee, that will establish and fund a quasi-governmental authority to collect data about broadband access holes in Maine, and propose a plan to deliver that service to underserved areas.
If that plan is approved by the next legislature, money will flow from a new fee on providers, to help pay for extension of service. The fee is likely to be passed on to consumers, and amount to $1.44 a year on an existing broadband account, and $1.20 on a typical phone bill. Similar legislation has been killed in the past by communications industry opposition. But this year is different, and the measure has enjoyed unprecedented industry support. Perhaps that's because -- after years of complaints that they've still haven't gotten broadband to Frenchboro, or New Sharon, or wherever— the legislation transfers the onus of meeting rural broadband needs to government.
We don't usually like to see new fees on already burdened consumers, but in this case, it's a reasonable fee in the service of an important social and economic goal.
Pingree's bill is a good piece of legislation, and it's based on a tried and true model that represents a proud moment in this nation's history, where the benefits of a technology increasingly vital to modern life were extended to all.
For further information, contact:
Rep. Hannah Pingree, 691-5071
Amy Watson, Legislative Aide, 287-1430
Kaylene Waindle, Communication Director, 287-1433
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