Gear Up teachers Patty Veayo, left, and Erica Emery, next to her, confer Wednesday night at the Starks Community Center where they work with students on their school work. They have been meeting at the center weekly to get help in a setting with reliable internet service. On the right is Mt. Blue student Zane Norton, back left is Mt. Blue senior Alexis Johnson, and back center is Nancy Allen, Mt. Blue Adult Education Center director. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Shortly before the Super Bowl earlier this year, Gov. Janet Mills joined an online pandemic briefing to urge Mainers to watch the game from their homes instead of gathering with friends for food, football and perhaps a deadly infectious disease.

At times, her video froze and words slurred as her halting broadband service strained to keep up. At times, Mills’ pixelated image got so fuzzy that it was automatically downsized to make her appear more clear to viewers.

Mills took note.

“I have an unstable internet connection,” the governor told those watching. “I’m only in the state capital, but you can’t rely on that.”

A screenshot of Maine Gov. Janet Mills’ briefing on Feb. 4 after her image was downsized because a larger one that filled the entire box on the left got too fuzzy due to poor internet quality.

When the Governor’s Office in the State House can’t get fast, reliable internet, it’s hardly surprising that much of Maine constantly struggles with poor connections — if it’s available at all.

Despite state efforts to address the issue for more than 15 years, at least 83,000 Maine households still can’t get broadband, according to a 2020 state report that analyzed secret data from internet providers. That means one in six Maine families are left out.

“It seems like everyone has a story about slow or no internet access in Maine,” Mills said during her recent budget address. “Sometimes it can seem like that’s just the way things are and that’s the way it will always be. But I don’t believe that.”

She called high-speed internet “as fundamental as electricity, heat, and water” and the “modern equivalent of rural electrification in the 1930s and the interstate highway system in the 1950s.”

“We need to have high-speed internet throughout our state, and with willpower and perseverance we will get there,” the governor said.

Political and business leaders are virtually unanimous in their pleas for quality broadband. They say it’s a necessity for remote workers, students who need to be online, telehealth sessions with medical providers and companies trying to buy and sell in an interconnected world.

Access to fast, reliable, affordable internet is “absolutely critical to the long-term future” of rural Maine, said Mike Wilson, senior program director of the nonprofit Northern Forest Center.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Lewiston, a second-term Democrat from the sprawling 2nd District, called the absence of good broadband “a huge problem in rural Maine” that’s become ever-more of a necessity because of the pandemic.

Marcel Polak said he moved to the small town of Woodstock in 1979 when it was so isolated that he got one of the last hand-cranked phones in the country to connect via an ancient party line system that relied on two operators in Elden and Barbara Hathaway’s back parlor to make connections.

The Bryant Pond Telephone Co. hung on until 1983 before it finally succumbed.

Though Polak still has an affection for the “very personalized service” of the old phones, he recognizes that times change.

He’s pushing now for Woodstock and surrounding towns to get on the internet fast track so people can get online and snag jobs that could include answering phones for retailer L.L. Bean, which has customer service staff in their own homes across Maine, as long as their broadband is sufficient.

Woodstock’s online speeds fall well short of L.L. Bean’s minimum standards, he said. It’s indicative of the necessity of getting “universal, high-speed, efficient and affordable broadband” throughout the state.

The way it is now, he said, people in Leon Leonwood Bean’s old hometown of Greenwood can’t even work for the firm he founded because they’re virtually offline in a world that depends on broadband access.

Or consider Sophie Ladd, a senior at Mountain Valley High School in Rumford who lives in nearby Byron.

Her family home has a DSL line, which connects to the internet using phone lines, but when she’s studying remotely three days a week and her parents are also trying to work, it can’t begin to keep up, sometimes shutting down entirely under the strain.

This graphic shows why internet speed matters. The federal standard for adequate broadband is at least 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 Mbps upload, which state officials say is already outdated. Government Accountability Office

When Ladd is in class via Zoom, she said, “I feel like I can’t even unmute myself because they’re not going to hear me for 20 seconds” given the lag time even when things are working.

It leaves her feeling cut off to an unsettling degree, sometimes forced to do her work at a friend’s house or elsewhere. She’s an eager, solid student who finds a way.

Not everyone does, as educators readily concede.

Polak said that sluggish or nonexistent internet is a problem that Republicans, Democrats and independents universally acknowledge and are eager to address.

But it’s one thing to recognize a problem and quite another to fix it.

TRYING TO FILL THE GAP

The reality is that large parts of Maine have little or no fast internet access because service providers can’t make money by wiring rural areas.

Mills said Maine’s population is scattered across the landscape to a greater degree than any other state. Its people are widely dispersed rather than concentrated in cities, she said.

Unlike phones and electricity that are considered essential services, broadband internet is not, and private companies have no obligation to lend a hand.

Laying new fiber optic lines to reach them all is inherently difficult, Mills said, pointing — for example — to “those pesky peninsulas” all along the coast that would each need their own fiber line in an ideal system.

These are some of the ways that broadband reaches homes and businesses. Government Accountability Office

The state’s ConnectMaine Authority office, which oversees its effort to extend the reach of broadband, estimated last year that it will cost at least $600 million to get almost everybody online, including $140 million for just Oxford and Franklin counties alone.

Providing all the necessary lines, Mills said, is “a financial challenge” that requires plenty of federal aid to supplement what the state can kick in.

Maine has relied for the last 15 years on creating community-focused partnerships between the state, and local entities, sometimes municipalities, and private firms to extend new lines. It’s put about $1 million annually into the effort.

Last year, taxpayers agreed to a bond issue that pumped another $15 million into the initiative. Mills has asked the Legislature to ask voters to back an additional $30 million broadband bond this year, a proposal that hasn’t yet been debated in Augusta, but has wide support.

On top of what the state is doing, the federal government has allocated billions of dollars to broadband expansion across the country. U.S. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, said the Pine Tree State will receive “more than $100 million” from the American Rescue Plan enacted this month that includes $10 billion to support broadband across the nation.

Serving those offline is the focus of most efforts, but part of the challenge also is supplying usable broadband to those with poor connections.

Some people who possess broadband internet by its formal terms don’t have enough bandwidth to meet their needs when multiple family members are online.

Peggy Schaffer, ConnectMaine’s executive director, said many Mainers are struggling with a service that meets an outdated standard.

King, a second-term Maine independent, is pressing the federal government to come up with a new standard that would require speeds of at least 100 megabits per second for both uploading and downloading, easily fast enough to watch Netflix while uploading videos to YouTube.

The FCC defines high-speed broadband as download speeds of up to 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of up to 3 megabits per second, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds rural broadband projects, uses an even slower rate.

Those rates, Shaffer said, are nowhere near enough. With more workers and students at home, she said, it’s become starkly clear that speeds must be significantly faster.

Heather Johnson, commissioner for economic and community development in Maine, said the system was built for people to consume information, like watching television, rather than creating it. That’s why download speeds are so much quicker than upload ones.

RUSHING TO HELP IN THE AGE OF COVID-19

When the pandemic hit last spring, Maine moved quickly to use federal COVID-19 aid to help students get online when their schools shifted to remote learning.

Mills used $15 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to deliver high-speed internet to 730 students in rural Maine and to purchase tablets and Wi-Fi hot spots for 21,000 more students. The hot spots allow households to tap into cellular phone networks to get online, typically at far less than broadband speeds but fast enough to make a difference.

Internet speeds can be slowed by distance and obstacles, as well as the number of users on a particular line. Government Accountability Office

George Reuter, principal of Buckfield Junior-Senior High School, said when his school went remote, he had to scramble to help ensure every student could get online.

In the end, he said, he managed to hand out 25 hot spots that let students and staff without any internet gain access to the system via cellular phone towers, a common solution in rural Maine. It’s not broadband, but it’s better than nothing.

Cellphones have helped fill the gap and may provide more help as more robust 5G networks roll out.

Reuter said one of his teachers, who was hunting moose in northern Maine during off days in the fall, was able to stay connected with students even in the woods where nobody lives because his cellphone still worked.

But cellular networks are slower and more costly than wired broadband. Satellite internet connections have had the same issues, at least so far.

Even places that have access for most residents, like Rockland, don’t have it for everyone.

When Juliette Zweig moved from Chicago to Rockland with her husband, a radiologist who took a job focused on helping ailing veterans, she never imagined that simply getting online would prove impossible.

Zweig said her husband required fast, reliable internet so he could receive images at home that allow him to diagnose patients’ problems swiftly. But the best connection they could get took up to 10 minutes to open an image that normally took less than a minute in Chicago, a delay that made working from home impossible.

“We had no idea Maine was still limping along with technology from the last century,” Zweig said.

They tried to get help from local and state officials, she said, but even though they were only a mile from a fast line, there was no way to reach it from her subdivision.

What’s more, Zweig said, nobody seemed to care.

Schaffer said there are quite a few subdivisions built in Maine during the 1980s and 1990s that put their utilities underground, but installed conduits too small to allow more wires to be added. At the time, she said, nobody considered the need for high-speed cable.

To add new underground cables, she said, would require installing new conduits that would be costly. As a consequence, many people just do without.

CAN WILLPOWER AND MONEY BRING CHANGE?

The politics of expanding broadband couldn’t be clearer.

That Mainers are clamoring for faster, more accessible internet was clearly demonstrated last summer when the state’s voters overwhelmingly endorsed a $15 million broadband bonding question, putting more money into ConnectMaine than the agency had received in more than a decade.

But promises and even cash to back them up only go so far.

Ladd, the high school senior who serves as president of the Maine National Honor Society, said politicians have promised good internet to rural parts of the state her entire life.

But progress has been slow.

So she’s naturally skeptical that anybody’s going to help.

When a politician vows to do more, Ladd said, “I take it with a grain of salt.”

Former Maine Gov. John Baldacci said he wanted to see the state much better wired for internet before he left office in 2011, but said the task proved tougher than he expected because private companies were wary of putting their own resources into the effort. Press Herald staff file photo

Former Gov. John Baldacci said he wanted to see the state much better wired before he left office in 2011.

But, he said, it proved tougher than he expected because private companies were wary of putting their own resources into the effort.

The “three-ring binder” project he pushed, which established a fiber-optic infrastructure that linked much of the state, still left “a gap in services” that couldn’t easily be filled.

“I was very disappointed that we weren’t able to have the public and private joining forces” more readily, Baldacci said.

Johnson and Schaffer, who are spearheading Mills’ efforts, said the state is putting money into public-private partnerships these days, making it possible for well-planned community projects to move ahead.

For instance, the fiber-optic lines that connect homes on Islesboro are “a real version of what can happen” when the pieces come together well, Johnson said. That project managed to bring fiber optic to nearly everyone on a Maine island at a reasonable cost.

SPEED THINGS UP OR GIVE UP

Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, speaks during the 2019 Maine Broadband Summit at Thomas College in Waterville. She said an emphasis is being place on public-private partnerships. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

Johnson said that by keeping costs down as much as possible, working closely with private companies, tapping expertise and aiming for equity and efficiency, Maine can get most everybody online.

Putting broadband everywhere, she said, gives people more control of their lives, with more choices about everything from careers to health care.

“It changes your quality of life” for the better, Johnson said, and that’s worth pursuing. Mills said the state will make solid progress.

For Zweig and her husband, the lack of access — something they’d assumed would be no problem before they arrived in Rockland — crushed their spirits.

She said it was so terrible that they opted to move back to Chicago.

“I couldn’t live like that,” Zweig said. “Somebody better really wake up,” she said, or young people are never going to stay in Maine.

This project was produced with the support of Investigative Editing Corps, https://www.investigativeediting.org.

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