Expanding high-speed internet access in rural Maine
As a native of Aroostook County, I know how important high-speed Internet is to the vitality of rural communities. From spurring job creation to supporting telemedicine to allowing online classes, access to broadband unlocks almost endless benefits and possibilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a renewed urgency to ensuring that families have a reliable connection to their loved ones, co-workers, schools, and medical services. In order to help close the “digital divide” between urban and rural America, I have introduced the American Broadband Buildout Act (ABBA), a bipartisan bill to expand access to high-speed Internet.
The legislation would provide up to $15 billion in matching grants to assist states and state-approved entities in building the “last-mile” infrastructure to bring broadband directly to homes and businesses in areas that lack it.
Projects supported by these matching grants must be located in “unserved” areas, where broadband is unavailable at speeds that meet the Federal Communication Commission’s standard. Focusing on those areas will direct support where it is needed most and will protect against “over-building” where broadband infrastructure is already in place.
The federal funding authorized in this bill would be matched through public-private partnerships between the broadband service provider and the state it serves. This means that states and their private sector partners will have “skin in the game” so that projects will be well thought-out and sustainable. Because half of the funding for each project will come from federal funds and the other half will come from state and private partner contributions, every federal dollar invested in Maine will be doubled.
In addition, the bill requires that projects be designed to be “future proof,” meaning that the infrastructure installed must be capable of delivering higher speeds as broadband accelerates in the future. This will ensure that federal tax dollars are used to help build a network that serves rural Americans now and in the future, without having to rebuild it every time technology advances.
Twenty-five years ago, Americans typically accessed the Internet using their home phone lines by modems capable of downloading data at just 56 kilobits per second, too slow even to support quality streaming music. Today, the FCC defines broadband service as having a threshold download speed nearly 500 times faster. Many areas of our country, particularly our rural communities, simply do not have the infrastructure to achieve these speeds and fully tap into the opportunities that digital connectivity can deliver.
Andrea Powers, the town manager of Fort Fairfield, recently described a number of challenges in her community: students who have to sit on the town library steps in order to finish research projects and submit their papers, a business owner who was forced to relocate his company to another community in order to have a chance to succeed, a senior citizen who requires the care of distant doctors but does not have the capacity to travel nor access to telehealth options.
Andrea told me the story of one family whose jobs rely heavily on access to high-speed Internet. They were told that it would cost them $15,000 to bring that connection to their doorstep. Unless access to broadband is increased, Andrea said: “We will continue to see a loss of business retention and expansion, along with job creation. We simply cannot afford to allow this to happen.”
Telehealth services are an essential piece of the national broadband conversation. Often rural communities struggle to attract and retain health care providers that they need to ensure access to quality care. Broadband is vital to bridging that gap to enable innovative health care delivery. For example, hospice workers at Northern Light Home Care were able to use the Internet and video technology to help support a patient living on an island off the coast of Maine, not far as the seagull flies, but hours away in travel time. The video enabled nurses to monitor the patient’s condition and symptoms, and equally important, to provide emotional support to her and to her family.
Rural Americans need access to high-speed Internet just as urban Americans do. The American Broadband Buildout Act would help expand high-speed Internet service where it is needed most and give a boost to job creation, education, and health care in rural America.