COLUMN: Increasing Access to High-Speed Internet in Rural Maine

By: Sen. Susan M. Collins


When Americans first began using the Internet a quarter century ago, they typically accessed online content using home phone lines via modems capable of downloading data at speeds too slow even to support MP3-quality streaming music.  Today’s broadband service can be nearly 500 times faster – Americans not only can watch their favorite movies on demand in the comfort of their very own living rooms, but also participate in the global economy while working from home, upgrade their skills through online education, stay connected to their families as they age in place, and access health care through advances in telemedicine.


While the increase in broadband speeds has been dramatic and is encouraging, these numbers mask a disparity between urban and rural Americans.  Nearly all Americans living in urban areas have access to the Internet at speeds that meet the Federal Communication Commission’s broadband threshold, while one-in-four rural Americans do not.


In order to help ensure that rural Americans have access to broadband services at speeds they need to fully participate in the benefits of our modern society and economy, I have introduced the bipartisan American Broadband Buildout Act.   This legislation would help close the “digital divide” between urban and rural America by directing the FCC to provide up to $5 billion in matching grants to assist states and state-approved entities in building “last-mile” infrastructure - the final link to the consumer -- to bring high-speed broadband directly to homes and businesses in areas that lack it.


One broadband application that holds special promise for rural America is telemedicine.  As a native of Aroostook County, I know how important health care is to the vitality, and even the survival, of rural communities.  Often, these communities struggle to attract and retain the physicians that they need to ensure access to quality care.  Broadband can help bridge the gap by enabling innovative health care delivery in these rural communities.


In an example described to me in a recent letter, hospice workers at Northern Light Homecare, which has six homecare and hospice locations in Maine, were able to use the Internet and video technology to help support a patient living on an island off the coast of Maine – not far as the seagull flies, but hours away in travel time.  The video enabled the hospice nurses to monitor the patient’s symptoms and provide emotional support to her family.  As the author of that letter, Lisa Harvey-McPherson, RN, put it: “Our hospice team could be doing so much more with video and tele-monitoring technologies if Maine had better connectivity.”


The American Broadband Buildout Act would require that projects receiving funding must be located in “unserved” areas, where broadband is unavailable at speeds that meet the FCC’s standard.   Narrowing the focus to these areas will ensure that the money goes where it is needed most and will also protect against “over-building” where broadband infrastructure is already in place.


My bill also would require that this federal funding be matched through public-private partnerships between the broadband service provider and the state in which the infrastructure project will be built.  This means that state, private sector partners, and the federal government will have a shared commitment, ensuring that projects will be well thought-out and designed to be sustainable.


In addition, funded projects must be designed to be “future proof,” meaning that the infrastructure installed must be capable of delivering higher speeds as broadband accelerates in the future.  This will ensure that federal tax dollars are used to help build a network that serves rural Americans now and in the future, without having to rebuild it every time technology advances.


Finally, the broadband buildout supported by the bill will help attract employers to rural parts of the country where broadband services are lacking yet are essential for businesses’ success.


Rural Americans deserve to enjoy the benefits of high-speed Internet in the same way that urban Americans do.  The American Broadband Buildout Act would help to bridge this digital divide by funding broadband where it is needed most and giving a real boost to job creation, education, and health care in rural regions here in Maine and throughout America.