Broadband bill supporters: High-speed Internet key to Maine economy

Rep. Gideon’s plan works with municipalities to expand broadband

Rep. Gideon speaks to the press regarding LD 1063AUGUSTA –  Supporters of a bipartisan measure to help Maine municipalities develop a robust broadband infrastructure are speaking up about the importance of high-speed Internet to education, rural communities, businesses and investment in the state’s economy.  

"We have great minds, talent and work ethic that keeps us on the cutting edge of great innovation, but we need something basic to surge ahead, to create good jobs with strong wages, no matter where you work.  We need a 21st century infrastructure solution.  Because the equation is simple: continued investment in broadband will lead to an acceleration of economic benefit for our state," Assistant House Democratic Leader Gideon of Freeport, the sponsor of LD 1063, said at a press conference. "Too often, we talk about the Internet only as if we were consumers, but the truth is this: Our future and the build-out of broadband infrastructure with high upload and download speeds are intricately tied together.  If we want to compete in the global economy, we need to think about how we use that infrastructure to become a producer of goods and services, an exporter, a revenue generator."

LD 1063 will help communities assess local needs and develop a plan to meet them by providing grant funding, technical assistance and the most up-to-date research and best practices in broadband technology. The increased support will come through the ConnectME Authority.

“Broadband is a crucial issue for ensuring Maine is competitive in the global economy and that our citizens have all of the available opportunities today’s technology can afford them. LD 1036 is the right step forward, and I am proud to be the lead co-sponsor of this legislation,” said Senate Republican Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls, a member of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. “We need to make sure Maine students, no matter where they attend school, can keep up with their peers across the country and the world. Access to high speed Internet opens up the world to students. To give Maine students these opportunities, we must improve our state’s broadband infrastructure.”

Broadband, essentially a fast Internet connection that is always on, provide connections to the global economy.  But currently, only 20 percent of the state’s addresses have access to broadband speeds that meet the state’s minimum definition of broadband –10 megabits per second symmetric,  the kind of speed needed for video conferencing or uploading documents efficiently.

“We spend much of our time pushing forward policies that will improve our economy, incentivize business and attract new talent to our state. But perhaps nothing is more important–or more basic–than ensuring our fiber highway is up to speed,” said Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Dawn Hill of York,  a cosponsor and member of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. “In a 21st-century economy, broadband is essential; it’s no longer a luxury. It’s as essential as the sand and gravel roads that get us from one end of this state–or this country– to another. Maine needs continued investment in a virtual highway so that the economic benefits for our state can grow and accelerate.”

Page Clason, a technology support professional with the Town of Isleboro’s Broadband Working Group, said his town is like many other rural Maine communities that are striving to maintain a strong year-round community.

“Reliable, robust Internet access has become as critical as roads or electricity.  Our people deserve equal opportunity to participate in business, education, entertainment, communication, and telemedicine activities rapidly evolving on the Internet,” he said. “Broadband access provides a bridge to these global opportunities making so much more available than a small island community can provide on its own. Equally important, it helps keep our community attractive to young families who are looking to relocate here while knowing life on an island has additional constraints.”

Maine Broadband CoalitionMaine currently has a 1,100-mile statewide fiber optic network called the Three Ring Binder, which can be accessed by carriers and service providers locally to connect Mainers with broadband.  The network extends to western, northern and Downeast Maine, but many communities lack the infrastructure to utilize the Three Ring Binder.  LD 1063 would help more areas of the state plug in to this so-called “dark fiber” network.

The town of Rockport used a Three Ring Binder connection to build a town-owned gigabit fiber optic network to its downtown businesses, a pioneering approach that has gained national attention. 

“I believe that for us to build the next several decades of economic security in Maine, we all need to think big. Really big!” said Rick Bates, Rockport’s town manager. “Maine has a lock on ‘quality of place’ and we would be hard pressed to find better quality of life than in Maine; the key is in making it so people can work from this beautiful palce we call home. Internet access is critical – not just fast Internet, but blazing fast Internet.”

Reliable broadband is key to retaining and attracting an educated workforce and to other aspects of business competitiveness, said Dan Sullivan, IT Manager for Woodland Pulp LLC & St. Croix Tissue Inc. in Baileyville.

“Our operations run 24/7, 365 days a year. It is extremely important for our workforce to be able to support our mills wherever they may be. We ship our products all around the world. Our sales people communicate across all time zones, so fast and reliable connectivity is crucial to our business,” Sullivan said. “Conversely, our customers need to reach us at all hours day and night. Our logistics department requires super-fast dependable broadband to manage trains, trucks and cargo ships that move our products. Our company is highly computerized and our IT department needs to respond to issues within minutes from anywhere. Indeed our ability to remain competitive requires fast secure Internet connections for all aspects of our business.

The following legislative leaders are also cosponsoring the bill: House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick, House Democratic Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, Senate President Michael Thibodeau of Winterport, Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond of Portland and Assistant Senate Republican Leader Andre Cushing of Hampden.

The Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee held a public hearing on the bill Tuesday. The committee will make a recommendation to the full Legislature after working the bill.