Written by Tim Goff
Executive Director Fort Fairfield Chamber of Commerce
Like many communities in rural parts of Maine, the town of Fort Fairfield has struggled to get connected to reliable, high-speed Internet access beyond our urban center. As it stands today, roughly 60% of the landmass of our town does not have access to broadband, which means about one-third of the town’s population cannot connect to Internet with 3Mb download and 1Mb upload speed – let alone the state’s new definition of high speed of 10Mb over 10Mb.
As a matter of fact, many rural communities are concerned that this recent change in the definition of unserved areas and the requirement for upload speeds of 10Mb has the potential to leave our small towns and cities even further behind as only 12% of the state currently has 10Mb over 10Mb service. We wonder about competing against projects that will serve many more people than we can connect, and how to deliver this new standard to outlying areas. While we believe this standard is a good benchmark, those who are receiving speeds of 1.5Mb or less, and may never see a 10Mb over 10Mb connection wonder if this change will leave us even further behind in a state where connectivity is already an issue. Our last mile, in many cases, is truly the last mile before an international border.
Having recently conducted a door-to-door survey of every home and business on the north-side of the Aroostook River which runs through Fort Fairfield, I can attest to the difficulties faced by residents looking to work from home, do research, connect with friends and family, or even allow their children to do their homework from home. Many folks spend much more than $50 a month for unreliable satellite or mobile Internet service, which is low-speed and often caps the amount of data folks have access to monthly. Others have invested hundreds of dollars to install towers and other equipment in the hopes of receiving a wireless Internet service that often falls well below the standard definition of high-speed (one resident told me during the survey that they are thrilled when they receive .3Mb). And those are the lucky ones! Many other residents have no options whatsoever to receive Internet service without removing trees, building towers and going deep into debt.
Communities in rural parts of Maine, especially those located hundreds of miles from much larger cities, already face an uphill battle to improve their economic conditions. Transportation costs are higher because travel times to markets are longer. The weather conditions are harsher, costing more money in fuel and weatherization, keeping a beautiful area from being attractive to many tired of the cold, ice and snow. It takes a special breed to make their home in these more far-flung locations, where winter is never far from mind or from reality. Yet, we love where we live, and so do our children, but when they have to stay at a friend’s house or visit the library each night to do homework or connect via social media, we are telling them that this is not a place that is invested in them.
We have more than one hundred properties on the market, with dozens more either unlisted or abandoned because people cannot find work, or have taken opportunities elsewhere. Many of these grand, old farmhouses lie empty, not because they do not make a suitable home, but because today’s young families demand Internet access, and in many cases require it for their jobs. Many of the doctors employed by the local hospitals do not live in our town because they cannot get reliable, high speed Internet service – a necessity for them to fulfill the requirements of their duties. At one stop while collecting data during my survey, a young mother told me she chose to purchase a property in town, despite loving a farmhouse several miles in the countryside. The reason had nothing to do with commute times or cost, but the need for her to connect to her place of employment from home. Ask any realtor in Aroostook County, and they will tell you similar stories of homes sitting vacant because there is not Internet access.
This reality has a tremendous negative impact on our ability to attract and retain young adults and families, who send their kids to our schools, shop in our stores and become a part of the fabric of our community. Our population continues to shrink, with no real hope to level the playing field with other parts of the country, state and even the county where Internet access is faster, better and cheaper. Without employees, employers are uninterested in investing in our community. Without customers, our businesses on Main Street struggle to keep the doors open.
Will high-speed Internet access fix all this? No, but it is a piece of the puzzle. Without grants to help subsidize this investment by private partners, towns like Fort Fairfield will never be able to cobble together enough funds to help incentivize the substantial amount of money it will take to bring reliable high-speed Internet service to our rural residents and businesses. While I applaud the ConnectME Authority and the State of Maine for changing the definition of high-speed Internet to a more reasonable speed, it reopens the door for places that have already received investments to seek additional resources to improve their situation. We worry that we will continue to get passed by as towns improve to 10Mb over 10Mb and we dream about 3Mb over 1Mb. This is the reality of rural Maine. We implore the ConnectME Authority to give priority to communities that truly are unserved and underserved. We believe this investment will help companies make the true last mile connections that provide limited return on investment and otherwise will never occur.
We love where we live, many people who visit or who have moved away long to return to their County roots, dreaming of a job or opportunity that would allow them to return and make a living. The Internet was supposed to be a great equalizer, promising a future where folks could work from home no matter where their home is located, to shop anywhere while still in their pajamas, and to be connected to anywhere in the world from anywhere in the world.