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Lee Umphrey is the president and CEO of Eastern Maine Development Corp., which is responsible for developing a comprehensive economic development plan for eastern Maine.
The economic health of eastern Maine depends on our ability to meet five strategic goals, and to answer the challenges of an aging population and people moving away for better opportunities.
When the Eastern Maine Development Corp. began the process to develop a comprehensive economic plan for our region, it quickly became clear that one of our top priorities had to be the expansion of fast, reliable internet.
Through an analysis of our region’s strengths and weaknesses, we determined that fewer residents of eastern Maine had access to broadband than other areas of the state, and that economic hardship made the service unaffordable for many more.
When we asked in our 2021 survey of businesses to describe the disadvantages they face, one of the top answers was “deficient digital infrastructure.” Overcoming this digital divide must be one of our region’s top priorities.
Through the bipartisan infrastructure law, the federal government is investing $65 billion to expand fast internet service. While much of the attention — and I understand why — has focused on the millions of dollars flowing into Maine to create the infrastructure for internet expansion, the federal action also directly attacks the problem of internet affordability.
For families, it makes little difference if a fiber optic cable runs past their house on a telephone poll if they can’t afford to sign up for service. Affordability is as pressing of a concern for internet expansion as speed and reliability.
That’s why the law created the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides a subsidy of up to $75 per month for households on tribal lands and $30 per month for other households. The program also includes a one-time, $100 discount on devices that can connect to the internet, like a laptop or tablet.
Gov. Janet Mills has also recognized the importance of affordability. She recently joined a bipartisan group of 25 governors to urge Congress to extend the connectivity program. “Closing our nation’s digital divide transcends politics. Whether you live in a rural area, a suburb or a city, every American needs access to high-speed internet,” the governors wrote to Congress.
As a collaborative partner on this effort, the Eastern Maine Development Corp. can support individuals in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties by increasing awareness of the program and assisting those ready to sign up for the Affordable Connectivity Program. Our staff will host sessions across our two-county region to sit with individuals to guide them through the registration process.
In addition to this statewide priority, the Eastern Maine Development Corp. worked with partners this past year to develop a regional digital equity plan, as did 12 other partners working in other regions and with tribal communities around the state. These plans all contributed to the development of the state digital equity plan submitted to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in September. A significant part of that work included gathering data on the factors that keep families and businesses from connecting to the internet, identifying statewide solutions to close the affordability gap, identifying existing resources for consumers and helping to support community-driven solutions to the challenges of access and affordability. This endeavor will be enhanced by offering digital literacy training.
Ensuring access to affordable internet is a lynchpin in our efforts to attract new people to our communities and to provide them access to job training, educational opportunities, telehealth and business development. Rural areas, where services are often sparse, particularly need those connections.
Eastern Maine has multiple advantages to draw people here and to attract remote workers. We have amazing outdoor recreational opportunities and natural resources, a strong system of higher education that includes both public and private colleges and universities, and a great quality of life.
High-speed internet is not the only thing we need to do in eastern Maine. We need to improve our transportation systems, establish affordable housing options, invest in climate resilience, embrace diversity and grow and develop our workforce while supporting existing businesses and attracting new ones.
But we have a great opportunity right now, with leadership and vision from the federal government and aggressive and clear goals from Mills, to ensure there is accessible, affordable and reliable broadband for all Maine people and businesses.