Broadband in Maine: Why No Action + What I Recommend

It’s remarkable how far internet service has come. For many of us, not having internet is almost as bad as not having power, and we’re frustrated if we can’t download a Netflix movie and begin watching it in a few seconds. Still, many in our community still do not have high speed internet access. How can this be? Why are so many businesses and households, even in more developed southern Maine, still without this service?

It’s not for lack of trying. In fact, we are lucky to have GWI, one of the original internet service providers in the entire United States, based right here in Biddeford. This is a remarkable business that has been here since its founding in 1994, and led the statewide development of broadband availability by laying the groundwork for a fiber optic network called the ‘Three Ring Binder’.

In its simplest terms, “broadband” is a fast connection to the internet that is always on. It’s critical for real estate agents, doctors, building contractors and insurance agents. It’s critical for schools and first responders. It’s critical for healthcare and agriculture, and frankly for keeping our youth in Maine. It can be delivered over wires, fibers, and over the air, and it’s kind of remarkable that it’s not available everywhere, really.

Here’s part of the problem. What “broadband” is, is not well defined, and that makes it hard to figure out where the coverage gaps are. What do I mean? Well, it’s tempting to think of broadband internet as a uniform thing which is the same everywhere. But in fact there are different definitions.

High download speeds are what most consumers focus on because that’s what you need for video streams like Netflix and music services like Pandora and Spotify. But upload speeds are important to a business, which might want to conduct a webinar for 150 architects located across the world, or do remote server backups of large data files. And the business user places a much higher premium on reliability.

This difference in needs is reflected in two competing definitions of broadband. The federal definition is a 25Mbps download and a 3Mbps upload speed. This tends to match the home user better. The state definition, from the Connect Maine authority, is a symmetrical 10Mpbs download and 10 Mbps upload. This is more suited to the business user.

You can take a speed test of your own connection on Google by just typing in the words ‘internet speed test’. My result, with Spectrum service in suburban Biddeford, was 83Mbps download speed, considered very fast, but only 2Mbps up, fairly slow – and unsuitable for many businesses.

And even though Maine is also one of the rare states with an advanced fiber-optic network, called the Three-Ring Binder, strung throughout the state, connecting rural areas to population centers, we are actually overpaying for connectivity relative to other cities in the USA and even across the world.

So what do I think we need to do?

Modifying net neutrality, which is the idea that there is no fast lane and no slow lane in broadband internet, might actually be good for Maine because it would spur competition. Network neutral means that providers using public funds to build out their networks are not allowed to charge extra for premium speeds. All the cars on the internet highway have to go the speed limit, no faster and no slower. But those extra fees might be what gets new internet connections built. I think we should look at these regulations for certain investments.

In conjunction with that, we also need to do more to understand where the underserved areas are. The availability of broadband can be finicky. Because it runs on a physical cable, it may end at an intersection; or be available on a main road but not a long driveway with three houses on it. We need to dedicate more to mapping service so we can figure out where the real holes in service are. This problem is surprisingly common. I recently worked with a business that was frustrated by slow service and few options for internet, only to find out, after extensive research, that a fiber optic line – an internet superhighway with some of the fastest service in the world – ran in the street right in front of them. Why was that so hard to find out? Let’s do more to understand where service is and isn’t.

That was good news, but the cost to splice into that line was $30,000, a lot for one business to bear. This high cost of adding an off-ramp to the internet superhighway is known as the ‘last mile’ problem. The Connect Maine Authority provides grant funds for ‘last mile’ infrastructure projects. Since the pure cost of today’s broadband internet buildout out is so high, it often means that an internet provider, which needs to make a profit, can’t make the numbers work to bring internet to rural roads or to a single business. To address this, we should let cities and towns be a guaranteed customer, meaning that if a project doesn’t ‘pencil out’ purely based on residential or business customers, it can be guaranteed a return by the municipality. This will help get new lines built and drop the signup cost for everyone.

Many young people have access high speed internet at school but not at home. Every 7th and 8th grader in Maine has a laptop, but many do not have the broadband at home to really use it. We should loan out wifi hubs that underserved students can take with them at the end of the day. Based on cellular service, these systems are available, and we should make use of them.

Lastly, as a rural state, we should look to get away from wires for that last mile and build out more wireless systems. New 5G cellular service, developed to handle surging demand from driverless cars, wearable tech like FitBits, surveillance cameras, smart buildings and mobile phones, is on the way, and we can help get it rolled out in Maine. The new 5G services don’t work like the cell services we’re used to. They’re not based on faraway towers. Instead, 5G service relies on a much denser mesh of smaller antennas, placed on practically on every streetlight. These small cells take only an hour to install, but it can take years to get permission. We can help cut some of that red tape. That’s a problem we need to take on.

The fact of the matter is that economic development in the 21st century for Maine is anchored on the availability, affordability and reliability of this infrastructure. Let’s find a bipartisan way to move these ideas forward.