As the old saying goes, a little knowledge can be dangerous. With new, vigorous federal incentives available for expanding broadband Internet access, the state’s ConnectME authority is beginning a precise study of where in Maine broadband is, and is not, accessible.
Since its inception in 2006, the ConnectME authority has been tasked with promoting expansion of broadband into rural Maine. The agency has awarded roughly $2.5 million in grants in the past two years for broadband projects, which brought connectivity to approximately 20,000 new households.
This is important work, although it has occurred without knowing, exactly, the areas of Maine that are served, unserved or underserved by broadband. The upcoming study should deliver this crucial information and provide the raw material necessary to develop a cogent, statewide broadband policy.
It also has the potential to shake Maine’s broadband thinking to its core. Once accumulated by ConnectME, we think the service data will indicate that Maine not only has problems with rural broadband penetration, but also with its availability and speed in urban and suburban regions.
This will posit the state’s next broadband questions: Which need is greater? Is further expansion of hard-wired broadband into rural areas the right use of resources, or should bolstering or improving lagging service in already-wired Maine be the higher priority?
These are tough questions. While putting broadband where it currently isn’t will have measurable economic benefits, the competitive economic advantage promised in Maine’s cities and towns by offering high-functioning, accessible and affordable broadband services is also tantalizing.
The answers, we think, won’t come from political sources alone. The government lacks regulatory authority to direct broadband investment, except through incentives like those offered by ConnectMe, and is limited to propelling projects through the encouragement of private industry.
Market forces — and more important, changing technology — will be major players. New community wireless initiatives such as those in Hermon and in several towns in the Midcoast promise to change perceptions of how Maine towns and cities should approach expanding broadband access.
(National developments, like wireless capacity now available to telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon from television’s “digital switch” from analog, will also dictate broadband development.)
Until the ConnectME service study is complete, we don’t know what we don’t know about Maine broadband. When we do know, this information will raise new issues about the state’s right course, how much funding is needed and what priorities should take precedence.
A little knowledge is dangerous, sure, because it creates new problems to solve. But for Maine and broadband, knowing what is true about connectivity is also crucial. The truth, after all, can set you free.
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