Taking on the puzzle of how to provide broadband for all

Broadband access is becoming critical for learning in all communities.

by Susan Bates

Access to the internet is something most everyone takes for granted. But not all access is equal; there is great variation in data speeds and reliability. There is a minimum standard for adequate service set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) called broadband, and many in St. George can’t access it.

“For myself, I view broadband access as something everybody will take for granted 20 years from now. It’s going to be so intertwined with our lives, most people won’t be able to imagine being without it,” says Jerry Hall, who serves as the Select Board liaison to a committee of the St. George Community Development Corporation called “Connect St. George.”

In St. George, the only provider of broadband is Spectrum (the company which bought Time Warner). And Spectrum’s service is generally limited to residences and businesses along town-owned roads. That leaves a large percentage of the town’s residents with inadequate or no service. There is a growing digital divide in our town.

To be able to figure out what our community can do about closing that divide it’s worth spending a paragraph to look under the broadband hood. Internet service is defined by two speeds: the speed to download data and the speed to upload data. Most internet service is designed to provide much faster downloading than uploading, because a typical user downloads a lot more data than they upload. Think of how often you read an email or the news on a web page, watch a video or look at a photograph. Sending, or uploading, emails typically isn’t a big data use. Broadband, the standard for adequate service set by the FCC, provides minimum download and upload speeds of 25 Megabits per second and 3 Megabits per second, respectively. Keep in mind, this is a minimum, and as our use of the internet grows, so will our data needs; for some it isn’t enough today.

Mandy Funkhouser, who is a member of the Connect St. George committee, says her biggest concern is that without access to broadband available throughout the town, young families with school-age children will be discouraged and deterred from moving into and remaining in this community. “If families do not see the town as a desirable community equipped to function in the future, this could very well lead to lower numbers of students entering the school system,” she explains. “In establishing our own district the town recognized that having a vibrant and sustainable school system is key to maintaining a year-round thriving community. The town has similarities with some of our island neighbors in that regard. And many of these island neighbors are investing in bringing reliable high speed internet to their communities. We should join with them and find the right solution for our community.”

Jeff Boulet, who chairs the Connect St. George committee, agrees. ”My wife and I have chosen to raise our son in St. George and I want his friends to have the same opportunities as kids in Rockland and Portland,” he says. “We live right off 131 and have really fast access, but he’ll have classmates who won’t have access to broadband.” After a pause he adds, “And 5G? “I get asked about 5G all the time at Tech Time at the Library. People think it will solve the problem. But that’s not the case. 5G devices need to connect to a network via fiber, and if you don’t have fiber to the home 5G doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Making aging in place possible is another reason why high speed reliable internet access matters. It means people can connect with their health care providers and family, as well as shop online when getting to the store is hard.

Connect St. George is a continuation of the Ad-Hoc Broadband Committee initiated by the Select Board in 2015. This year, to better understand the issues and community priorities, Connect St. George, the Select Board and State Representative Ann Matlack hosted two community meetings.

At the first meeting in May, community members talked about the importance of the internet and their struggles to connect. Several residents voiced concerns about the cost of bringing broadband down every road. Some with broadband came because they wanted to support bringing broadband to the entire town. “I’m glad to see that people have started to push on this. We can help our kids, help ourselves, and help our seniors. It’s good for the future of St. George.” stated Matlack.

On June 18 there was a public meeting with a representative of Spectrum, which currently provides broadband access to 750 customers in St. George. But Spectrum doesn’t have plans to expand service in St. George. It would be up to the Connect St. George committee to ask the company what it would take to do a build-out to serve the entire town, as they’re doing in other communities.

Both meetings were moderated by Kendra Jo Grindle, a Community Development Officer of the Island Institute. “Kendra Jo was a big help in moving these information gathering sessions forward,” said Boulet.

There are a lot of ideas and opinions about how to achieve the goal of making broadband available to everyone in St. George who wants it. Whatever the final plan is going to be, there is one clear next step: Find out how many homes and businesses have inadequate service by getting good data on how many premises are currently not served or underserved by broadband.

To that end, Connect St. George is beginning to conduct a broadband audit to pull together that information. “Collecting good data on which homes can’t access broadband is essential so we have a clear picture of the problem we’re addressing,” said committee member John Maltais.

The main source of internet service data is the ConnectME Authority, a public agency whose mission is to facilitate the universal availability of broadband to all Maine households and businesses. The problem is that some of the data on the Connect ME website doesn’t accurately reflect the conditions on the ground. As Maltais explains: “ConnectME gathers their data through a federal agency. It lists households within a range of addresses that are unserved or underserved. We know that specific St. George roads like Scraggle Point, States Point and Snows Point don’t connect at those rates (a minimum 25 Mbps download), and yet, they all show up as adequately served. Once we’ve accomplished a community audit we can begin to plan the scope of the project.” It’s a puzzle, Maltais says, of “how to work with the politics, regulations, and, most importantly, the community-at-large, to assess the need and figure out how to do it.”

There will also be many more conversations. Hall reflects: “How do we get there? We need to have a discussion about how we get there. On the Select Board there are quite different points of view, which reflect the different points of view in the town. It’s important that we talk as much as we can with people about the different options before us.”

Funding from the State may help with the eventual solution, says Matlack. “I’m hoping the legislature will pass the bond package later this summer to be on the ballot in November. That will provide $30 million for the Connect ME Authority to help unserved and underserved communities improve their broadband infrastructure.”

“The way broadband is regulated it’s not a service that is guaranteed,” notes Rob Kelley, President of the St. George Community Development Corporation. “The effort that was made to bring telephone and electricity to everyone should be done with broadband—it may be, eventually, but until it does we have to band together as a community and make it happen.”

Jerry Hall sums up the challenge. “The key question facing us is how do we get a partially served community to be a fully served community? It’s a tricky one.” For the members of Connect St. George it’s a challenge they’re ready to tackle.

(Bates is a member of Connect St. George.)

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