Judy Meyer

In 2000, then-Gov. Angus King proposed The Maine Learning Technology Initiative, a controversial proposal to provide a laptop to every seventh-grader in the state. It was the first such plan in the nation, and came to be known under the catchy moniker “From Lunches to Laptops.”

It took two years to wrangle legislative approval and, in 2002, Apple gave Maine a sweet deal on 15,000 iBooks for students and 3,000 more for teachers. Apple also paid to install 239 wireless networks in our schools, and some students were offered free home internet access to take best advantage of what was intended to be “anytime, anywhere” learning technology.

At the time, King said one of the most important things the state needed to do was work with teachers to show them what could be done with computers in the classroom. This was cutting-edge stuff, and the adjustment to digital learning was met with equal parts enthusiasm and doubt.

One of the key goals of King’s plan was to bring greater equity to learning, giving low-income students who didn’t have computer equipment or internet access at home the same opportunities as their higher-income peers whose homes were equipped with access.

But, the free internet access didn’t last and very quickly low-income students and those in the state’s most rural areas became trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide: able to learn equally with other students while in school buildings but not at their own kitchen tables.

Three years later, in 2005, through his Connect Maine proposal, then-Gov. John Baldacci pledged to serve 100% of Maine communities with cellphone coverage by 2008 and 90% of Maine homes and businesses with broadband by 2010. A year later, he announced his administrative was “ahead of schedule on both and will meet the broadband goal later this year.”

That was 2006.

This is 2021, and we’re nowhere near 90% broadband coverage across the state, nor are 100% of Maine communities served by cell coverage. Not even close.

As we look back on decades of campaign promises and administrative wobbling, and on tens of millions of dollars in broadband investment, Maine is behind and getting behinder.

Baldacci’s Connect Maine proposal is now the Connect Maine Authority, whose mission is to facilitate availability of broadband to all Maine households and businesses. In order to accomplish this mission, Connect Maine must first know just where broadband is currently available and then work to fill in the holes.

Thing is, Federal Communication Commission maps of available broadband are both incomplete and incorrect. The maps are based on assumptions rather than clear data, and are close to useless.

For instance, if the FCC determines just one household in an entire census block is served, it counts the entire census block as being served.

That’s like looking around at a school cafeteria filled with 300 students and seeing one child eating a sandwich, and then counting every other child as adequately fed. It’s a ridiculous measure.

Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chair of the FCC, said last year that “there are communities in this country with blazing fast gigabit speeds and areas where buffering means suffering and still others where there is no service to be found at all.”

The FCC doesn’t know, with any precision at all, what areas of the country are served and which aren’t, she said, and “if you think that’s crazy, you’re right.”

It’s crazy, all right, and continuing to throw hundreds of millions of dollars on plans to expand broadband when we don’t even know where it is is failure defined.

In our series, “No Internet. The high cost of connecting Maine,” we have examined not just the cost in dollars for Mainers without access, but the cost in this pandemic year for students who are learning remotely, for employees working from home, for patients trying to access their health care providers, and for all of us who have relied on digital platforms to visit family and friends.

As we have reported, some communities — like Islesboro — didn’t wait for government to step in. Townspeople worked with private sector investors to wire the entire island community in such a way that broadband is less expensive and more accessible than ever. It’s a success story, and proof consumers have enormous power in this market.

If service providers recognize areas where broadband is lacking, they have a compelling corporate interest in filling those holes— but they have to know where the holes are.

We can all help.

The Maine Broadband Coalition intends to do what the FCC cannot: accurately map broadband accessibility and speed in Maine.

The coalition has developed a simple test that anyone can perform in less than a minute to pinpoint access and speed at home, at work, in school, anywhere. If enough people run the test, the coalition will be able to clearly map availability and identify broadband deserts.

Across the state, close to 15,000 households have conducted the test, or fewer then 3% in some counties, which is not nearly enough.

More than ever, our lives and livelihoods depend on reliable digital service and we need good maps to evaluate need and support improvements.

Go ahead. Go to mainebroadbandcoalition.org and take the test.

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