Broadband internet is as essential for community resiliency as are dependable roads, electricity and public safety. These services provide foundation for people to live, work and enjoy a basic quality of life. Rural places in Maine are finding creative solutions to a fundamental challenge: lack of density in population reduces the financial feasibility for the private sector to create necessary broadband infrastructure. This challenge is nowhere clearer than on Maine’s inhabited islands. Not just remote or rural, islands are, by definition, cut off from neighboring communities. This adds cost and complexity to any connections.
GrowSmart Maine was pleased to participate in the ribbon cutting for the municipally-owned broadband network and follow-up roundtable discussion hosted by the Island Institute in Islesford, Little Cranberry Island, on Tuesday July 10. These events highlighted the collaboration and local commitment and was coordinated with a visit to Maine by Anne Hazlett, Assistant to the Secretary of USDA for Rural Development. The Cranberry Isles broadband initiative was funded in large part by a Community Connect grant from USDA:RD as this agency recognizes e-connectivity as a critical strategy for economic development, innovation & technology, workforce development and quality of life. The Island Institute coordinates this initiative and supports island and coastal communities as they choose to take charge of their future through community-driven process.
A local broadband committee worked extensively to articulate the value of access to highspeed internet within the communities and with funders and other supporters. These include access to work opportunities, improved telehealth and educational opportunities, as well as access to resources and markets for island-based businesses. And on Tuesday islanders were joined by other partners in celebrating successful deployment of fiber on all three of the Cranberry Isles.
Following the ribbon-cutting there was a roundtable in which other regional approaches to addressing the broadband divide were presented. Franklin and Cumberland counties are deep in planning for regional solutions (yes, there are rural towns in Cumberland county!). Maine West updated the audience on their broadband planning process in which coordinated plans have been outlined for 25 towns. Action plans range from beginning steps to larger efforts and include both youth engagement and increasing uptake when broadband is available. Islesboro, another year-round Maine island community, has successfully deployed a town-funded municipal system offering universal service with a low-income subsidy resulting in a 90% uptake. With this variety of strategies, the best models allow the flexibility necessary for ease of transfer to other towns. Each has town and system design has unique assets and challenges, but any community focused on managing their future can incorporate high-speed reliable internet in their plans.
GrowSmart Maine serves on the steering committee for the Maine Broadband Coalition with CEI and Maine’s Small Business Advocate and in that role will continue to advocate for and support community-driven efforts. As with most significant issues in rural areas, regional solutions will be the most effective. We will be highlighting several Maine-based “localism” efforts focused on the rural economy at our October 11th Summit in Bangor. There is still time to submit a proposal if you are part of such an effort and want to share outcomes and lessons learned with peers from across the state.