Nestled in the northeastern corner of the country, Maine is home to picturesque lighthouses and vibrant communities. Maine also faces a unique challenge to closing the digital divide and battling the COVID-19 pandemic: it is the least densely populated state in New England. From Portland to Islesboro, residents have worked together to find ways to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing reliance on virtual platforms.
In March of 2020, communities across Maine began processes to switch work and school to distance learning and work-from-home formats, but many districts and the Governor’s office resisted due to logistical constraints. In urban and suburban districts, adequate high-speed broadband connectivity was available. Stakeholders were able to activate technology for students and employees to take home. Yet, in rural districts, residents faced entirely different challenges.
The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) reports that 96.88% of Mainers have access to fixed terrestrial broadband across the state. In the state’s more rural counties, broadband access can drop as low as 83.75% according to the most recent FCC data. While much of New England is characterized by sprawling suburbs and well-developed communities, the State of Maine claims the title of “most rural state” according to the 2010 Decennial Census.
Even with their rural designation, some communities have not let that interfere with plans to close the digital divide. One NCC member town, Islesboro, is reaping the benefits of their multi-year investment in a fiber-to-the-home network. Over the last few years, Islesboro residents almost universally adopted the town-owned-and-operated network.
Even with a year of unprecedented reliance on broadband, Page Clason, a broadband specialist for the town, said “Life is good in Islesboro.”
Without missing a beat, the community stayed online throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Clason said that many seasonal residents, a significant portion of Islesboro’s community, are coming earlier and staying longer because of their ability to effectively work from home.
For Clason, the future of broadband will rest in continuing to make their community a vibrant place for young people to settle as they pursue careers and families. Islesboro residents are exploring larger ways to utilize the network to improve daily life such as expanding online opportunities for business or connecting with members of their community remotely.
Mainers are proud of the work to address gaps in broadband access. In November of 2020, the Executive Director of ConnectME said, “What we know is 85,000 is probably the floor of who is not connected and not the ceiling,” an announcement that continues to drive the passion for state and local officials to close its digital divide.
ConnectME continues to implement solutions statewide. Recently, ConnectME announced a number of public-private partnerships that would connect every student in the state through free WiFi connections. The program also prioritizes support for communities with high rates of free and reduced lunch.
For years, ConnectME and its partners have been implementing solutions to bring connectivity to every corner of Maine. That work continues today. Known across the country and around the world for the Lobster and Blueberries, Mainers are now positioning themselves to bring every resident online, the animating force for communities from the Canadian Border to the Gulf of Maine to thrive.