As recently as 10 years ago, Maine was ranking near the middle of the pack nationally for the level of Internet access offered to the public. Since then, Maine has slipped, and, to restore itself, observers say the state's digital services industry will have to take steps to improve the average speed of its Internet connections.
University of Maine Computer Science Professor George Markowsky remembers when Maine was a leader in building Internet access across the country. "Maine, I think, was relatively better off vis-a-vis the rest of the nation. We were the first state that had all of our libraries and schools interconnected."
But today, Markowsky says that status has been eroded. "We are dead last in the United States."
The average download speed in the United States is just over 29 megabits of data a second, with an upload speed of 8.5 megabits. Maine’s average is less than half that, and Markowsky says higher speeds are only available to larger businesses located on a fiber optic network. He says Maine’s political leaders must develop public-private partnerships to build out a fiber network that reaches all types of businesses, and individuals.
"And in particular, you know, those areas right now that are undergoing severe economic hardship because of mill closings, we make sure they are on track to receive terrific Internet services," Markowsky says, "because, you know, we need to attract new businesses, new types of businesses." Markowsky says it’s not just booming markets, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, that have far better Internet speeds, but countries like Romania and Moldavia.
And Thomas College President Laurie LaChance, former head of the Maine Development Foundation, says the state's future depends on developing high-speed access to business and education facilites at all levels. "It’s time to turn our attention back to some of those very basic - what I would call very basic - infrastructure now, and making sure we have high-speed Internet in place."
"People can’t work here. And one of the main reasons they can’t is they don’t have the connections," says Danny Sullivan, chair of the Washington County Fiber Initiative, a group seeking to bring what he calls "true" high-speed Internet Downeast. That means broadband over fiber with speeds of 1 gigabit per second. "You can’t compete in a global economy without a super-fast, always on Internet."
Sullivan believes Maine’s economy could actually boom with better Internet access.
"You will see people move to this state, you will see companies come here," Sullivan says. "You know, the IBM corporation, over 50 percent of people who work for IBM, work from home. They could live in rural Maine, buying cars, paying taxes, sending their kids to school. They could live on gorgeous Cathance Lake, where the water is so clean on this lake I live on, you can drink it. Maine’s got incredible assets."
Sullivan says he wished more political leaders understood the need to look at the Internet as another public utility on which we all depend. Maine U.S. Sen. Angus King agrees, and says universal high-speed Internet access should be a given.
"They ought to be what are called 'common carriers,' which is, they take whatever comes and charge the same rate to everybody," King says. "Again, we have dealt with this before, we have been dealing with these kinds of issues for 100 years with electrical systems, with phone systems."
King says building out the infrastructure needed for the United States to compete globally will require the resources of both state and federal governments, as well as the private sector.