The Maine Connectivity Authority recently announced $8.1 million in grants to provide rural homes and businesses in the Brookton area with high-speed internet access, supplementing the $110 million in federal funding Maine received last year to bridge its digital divide.
Maine’s economy depends on its pristine wilderness as a source of hunting, trapping and tourism. Yet, thanks to this same pristine wilderness, Maine currently ranks 45th in the nation in broadband access. Recognizing this problem, Gov. Janet Mills has pledged that every person who wants high-speed internet will get it by 2024.
The latest influx of funds is supposed to help. But until we find a way to ensure these funds are used efficiently and effectively, they’ll be more of a hindrance than a help to Maine’s taxpayers.
A cheaper and more efficient solution to closing the state’s digital divide exists. That’s a broadband voucher program. Giving consumers in Maine’s rural towns the funds and the freedom to find the best way to connect to the grid could save the state millions of dollars. Instead of having taxpayers foot the bill for more multimillion-dollar broadband development plans, Maine should bypass the government projects entirely and give money to consumers through vouchers.
These vouchers can be used to fund alternative methods that can provide broadband service. For example, homeowners in rural areas could choose to receive broadband by satellite or fixed wireless systems. The most well-known satellite broadband service system, SpaceX’s Starlink, is already in use worldwide, from Ukraine to rural Maine. A voucher program could help Mainers link up. Meanwhile, fixed wireless is growing in popularity, especially in rural areas. These broadband systems connect homes and businesses at fixed locations via radio signals from stations usually mounted on roofs, utility poles or cell towers.
A voucher program would allow rural residents to determine whether an individual satellite system or a small, fixed wireless system would suit them best. It would be an efficient and consumer-driven way to close the digital divide.
Regarding efficient and effective distribution of funds, the federal government is next door to a complete failure. The federal government determines funding for states’ rural broadband programs through maps created using census, tax and land-use records. The major problem with this method of map creation is that if service providers report they offer broadband to any home on any given block, then the entire census block is checked off as served — which is far from accurate much of the time. That means program funds from Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment plan, for example, often miss states that desperately need it.
Funding through mapmaking has led states to compete for federal funds by over-reporting the number of homes needing broadband to multiple federal programs and agencies, as the $44 billion that the federal government has spent to finance state broadband infrastructure is distributed to the states based on need.
Ultimately, the combination of mapping methods and bureaucratic waste means most of the money for rural broadband misses the people who need it. This is apparent in the unbelievable amount of money that Maine receives for broadband development every year. With hundreds of off-the-grid camps, second homes and cabins in the beautiful Maine backwoods, Maine’s state government and state utilities are set to receive billions of dollars annually. Yet all that money gets lost in the bureaucratic process, and Maine consistently ranks among the bottom 10 states for internet access.
Some Maine citizens have grown tired of waiting for incompetent plans from the state and have even started to formulate their own broadband plans at the municipal level. Voters in Leeds approved a $2.2 million bond to create their own municipal broadband network to extend internet to unserved residents.
They could have really used a voucher program. Bypassing state bureaucracies and providers would empower consumers to take advantage of the best options the free market offers and avoid footing the bill for extending fiber-optic cables into rural areas.
Voucher programs have a proven track record of delivering broadband access. Alabama and Delaware have successfully delivered broadband coverage to more than 200,000 households.
Maine should follow suit. Imagine if Maine was a state where you could enjoy hunting in Aroostook County or ice-fishing in Jackman, then return to your log cabin with cutting-edge internet connectivity.
That’s within reach, but only if we bypass state bureaucracies and empower citizens to care for themselves.