House Panel Told Broadband Policies Should Not Worsen Urban/Rural Divide

September 11, 2019 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – A far-reaching broadband connectivity should not be dictated by the location of a home or business, but rather should foster economic growth and sustainable communities by being equally accessible by all.

That was the overarching message delivered to the House Small Business Subcommittee on Contracting and Infrastructure during a recent field trip to the University of Maine.

Arranged by Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, the subcommittee’s chairman, and its ranking member, Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., the bipartisan Sept. 6 session with small business in the state couldn’t have come at a more critical moment.

Currently about 83,000 homes and business across the state don’t have access to broadband internet service. Despite this, just last month, the Maine legislature failed to pass a bond proposal that included $15 million for broadband expansion.

Rep. Golden said at the outset that he hoped hearing attendees would identify potential changes Congress could make to improve small business connectivity.

We’re going to find the solutions that will help us connect more small businesses in rural Maine with high-speed broadband in places like Baileyville, Machias, and Roque Bluffs, not in Washington,” Golden said.

“That’s why it’s so important that we bring Congress to Washington County, where small businesses and towns are doing the hard work — and succeeding — to build the broadband infrastructure their communities need,” he said.

Stauber said it’s plain to see that with fast and reliable broadband access, even the smallest towns and communities can compete with the rest of the world.

“I am committed to closing the digital divide between our urban and rural communities as broadband is vital to the success of every small business, school, hospital, and family,” he said. “I am thankful to be working with my colleagues from both sides of the aisle on this issue. Together, we can ensure every American small business and family has access to dependable broadband.”

Among those who addressed the committee was Mary Hanscom, a local selectwoman who also happens to own a family-run blueberry farm.

Hanscom, who also runs a pair of Airbnb rentals, said she is currently forced to use an “inadequate” internet to advertise blueberry products and interact with rental customers.

“When my internet service has slowed, as it inevitably does at night, I have lost connections with my Airbnb customers,” she said. “This happens on a regular basis. Have I lost those customers? I don’t know. But clearly this quality of communication is not conducive to positive business interactions.

“There are many more of me – farmers, fisherman, lobster sellers — who either are paying exorbitant prices for better connectivity or are struggling to make this inadequate technology work for them,” she continued. “In Roque Bluffs, we had residents who planned to run their businesses out of their homes but who sold those homes because their internet service was so slow.”

While Hanscom said she appreciated the subcommittee’s focus on small business, she reminded them that “few businesses exist in isolation.”

“They are integral parts of communities,” she said. “Creating a business friendly community means keeping young people from moving away, attracting new working age residents, and creating an educated workforce. This requires broadband not only at work but at home for students and for employees and their families.

“The ‘last mile’ problem is not literally one mile, but many. Most small, rural communities lack a broadband network altogether. The problem is not the single mile down the driveway to the road, it is extending the network over many miles to provide service on the road itself. Once the network has been extended, providing service to all customers, not just small businesses, becomes economical,” Hanscom added.

Mark Ouellette, president and CEO of Axiom Technologies, a broadband service provider whose customers include some of the hardest to reach in the state, said whatever the committee decides to do, it must make sure its solution bridges, rather than worsens the urban/rural divide.

“All small businesses are not created equally,” he said. “A job created or retained in a rural community can have an oversized impact.”

Next, the government needs to stop investing in outdated and unscalable technology, and needs to spend more time focusing on the reliability of the technology is does deploy.

Lastly, Quellette noted that bridging the digital divide means more than providing homes and businesses with a good connection.

“It requires educating subscribers how to leverage their connection through digital literacy teaching and classes,” he said. ” The federal government can play an outsized role in educating  citizens and municipalities on how to better leverage a broadband connection.”

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