Tuesday, June 23, 2020

AARP and local municipalities advocate for broadband internet in rural communities

By Lorraine Glowczak

More than 20 years ago, the popular use of dial-up internet hit the mainstream, changing the way the world communicates and completes business. Fast forward to the 21st century where high-speed internet has changed life further, affording many the freedom to create home-based businesses, provide financial savings via online learning as well as the ability to “cut the cord” from cable television.

But much like a well-traveled road that requires expansion to continue the swift pace desired, the speed and availability of the internet is quickly changing. For those in rural areas like Windham and Raymond, the internet is unable to keep up with the traffic and demands of its residents, students, and business owners. This has been a challenging issue in rural communities for a long time, but the current pandemic as put a serious spin on its present need for success on all levels.

“Now more than ever, we are seeing what the lack of internet access means for people in underserved communities like Windham and Raymond,” said Lori Parham, Executive Director for AARP Maine. “As a result of COVID-19, people are feeling more isolated and alone as the need for communication and connection has transitioned to online platforms.”

Although most of AARP’s focus and mission is to assist and support individuals who are 50 and older, it is also recognized that broadband internet is critical for diverse economic growth across all ages. As a result, they are advocating for Maine Ballot Question 1 this election cycle.

At the July 14, 2020 election, voters will get the opportunity to vote on this issue with Question 1 - High-Speed Internet Infrastructure Bond Issue. A "yes" vote supports this measure to authorize $15 million in general obligation bonds for the ConnectME Authority to provide funding for high-speed internet infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. A "no" vote opposes this measure to authorize $15 million in general obligation bonds for the ConnectME Authority to provide funding for high-speed internet infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas.

The bond will be matched with 30 million in private, local, or federal support and the 15 million investment would bring a total of 45 million or more to buildout the infrastructure needed and is essential to individuals in rural communities.

“High-speed internet is essential for young and old alike – from school children, business owners to caregivers as well as retirees,” said Jane Margesson, AARP Maine Communications Director. “The lack of broadband internet impacts services that are much needed – whether is it a teacher trying to instruct their student online, an occupational therapist providing service to the young learner or older adult trying to access telemedicine because the pandemic prevents a one to one office visit - whatever the case may be, Mainers deserve to have access to high speed internet and it is simply not available to everyone in rural communities.”

Both Raymond and Windham municipalities know the importance of the role Broadband plays in economic and social success. They have worked tirelessly together to support individuals, schools and businesses in the Sebago Lakes communities.

Don Willard, Raymond’s Town Manager, stated in a 2018 interview on this subject that it was time for Maine to be a leader instead of a follower.

“It is imperative to invest in our future,” Willard said. “We must change and adapt if we are to remain economically viable, for not only businesses in the area, but for the community at large.”

In a recent phone conversation, Willard backed his statement from that previous interview.

“What I said two years ago is truer now more than ever as a result of the pandemic,” he said. “Our future economic viability depends upon this critical infrastructure to meet the needs of not only our business community, but also to have success in all manner of future communication endeavors and most importantly provision of education at all levels.”

The Windham Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) has long been a supporter of broadband internet and has advocated legislation to help rural communities in Maine increase broadband infrastructure and reliability.

“The legislature has enabled towns and cities to form Municipal Broadband Utilities and has provided a funding mechanism allowing these utilities to raise capital through Revenue Bonds,” explained WEDC Director, Tom Bartell. “We are also working with Cumberland County government, which has received grant funding to research which form of the Municipal Broadband Utility would be best for the region.”

AARP-Maine is a member of the Maine Broadband Coalition and has worked closely with this group on this effort. For a full list of supporters to date: www.betterinternetformaine.org/allies/ 

To learn more about high-speed internet and/or Maine Ballot Question 1, contact AARP at Parham at lparham@aarp.org , Raymond Town Manager Willard at don.willard@raymondmaine.org or Bartell at the WEDC at thbartell@windhammaine.us. <

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