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Looking For Broadband Down East? Check It Out Of The Library

Robbie Feinberg

In much of Maine, it’s tough to find quality, high-speed internet. According to one estimate, Maine ranks 49th out of 50 states when it comes to broadband availability.

The problem is magnified when you head Down East, to rural, coastal towns such as Cherryfield and Isle au Haut.

The small fishing village of Jonesport is more than an hour and a half east of Bar Harbor. And if you go at night, past the corner store and the church, you might see a strange sight: lots of cars, with people inside, just parked outside the library.

“Oh my goodness!” says librarian Heidi Hinckley. “You come out at night and there are four or five cars out here.”

Librarian Heidi Hinckley says these are kids doing homework, using the library’s Wi-Fi because there’s no access at home.

“I mean, it was just like, boom! Where did all these people come from?” Hinckley says.

As education has moved from books to web pages, the internet has become a necessity for students. But in rural parts of Maine, high-speed internet simply isn’t available at home.

Hinckley shows off one solution being tried in Washington County: mobile Wi-Fi devices that can be checked out of the library, just like a book.

About 10,000 of the devices have been distributed across New York City. But the New York Public Library wanted to see the effect they would have in a rural area, so in 2015, the library partnered with the Maine State Library on a two-year project to purchase about 80 devices for libraries from Cherryfield to Lubec.

Jared Leadbetter, technology consultant for the Maine State Library, says that access is critical for educators.

“When you’re dealing with hundreds of students, you really need something where you can connect with a high-definition world,” Leadbetter says. “And anything less is going to deprive these students of tools that they need going forward.”

So, has the experiment worked? In Jonesport, Hinckley says as soon as the school year started last September, every single device flew off the library shelves, with a waiting list of up to a dozen more families. It gets particularly bad in winter, she says, when low-income families deal with expenses such as heating oil.

“A lot of the people will just go, ‘I’ve gotta make the choice here,’” she says. “‘I’ve gotta buy heating oil. Wood for the wood stove.’ The bills always take the priority, and the internet is usually the first thing to go.”

That need isn’t just in Washington County. Devices have also been deployed in Aroostook County and even in Portland. But there have been some challenges.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / MPBN
Librarian Heidi Hinckley shows off a Wi-Fi checkout device at the Peabody Memorial Library in Jonesport.

“Just basic coverage turns out to be a problem,” says University of Texas communications professor Sharon Strover.

Strover studies these Wi-Fi checkout projects — she even sent a team to Washington County this summer to look at Maine’s program. Strover says some libraries have had success, but in some towns with limited cellular coverage, the devices couldn’t connect to the internet at all.

“In some locations, they worked initially, then stopped working,” she says. “In other locations, they worked for a while and tapered off. They may still be able to be operated, but the librarians don’t seem to know how to get them going again.”

And even when the devices do work, they have limited data available — only 2 gigabytes a month. That’s enough to browse some web pages, but if you want to watch a video or a tutorial, that can quickly use up all your bandwidth for the month. That can leave students stuck right back where they started — without any home internet access for weeks at a time.

Nevertheless, Janet McKenney with the Maine State Library says she wants to see every rural library with two or three devices, designed for low-income families. But funding runs out in January and McKenney says that leaves local libraries with a tough decision: can they afford to keep offering the devices?

“Now the other choice for libraries is: do I get into a monthly bill for the amount of these units, and is that valuable commodity?” McKenney says. “And as we talk about libraries lending things other than books, this is the new era of lending. We’re lending the internet.”

There are efforts underway to increase rural internet access. Briana Warner is the economic director for the Island Institute, which is working to help island communities with similar problems.

Warner points to the island of Islesboro, which is planning a $3 million project to get gigabit-speed connection. She says every town doesn’t need to go that far, but she thinks it’s important for both educating students and making them want to come back after college.

“Once they go to college, they have high-speed internet speeds. They have a lot of career opportunities,” Warner says. “And then they look at the island, where they’d like to go back to, and their career opportunities are really limited.”

Even with big hurdles ahead, Warner is optimistic that 10 years down the line, internet speeds on these islands and coastal towns could catch up — and maybe even surpass — some cities on the mainland.