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Mainers hope COVID-19 pandemic is catalyst for statewide broadband improvement

A recent study from High Speed Internet indicates that in 2020, Maine ranks third for slowest average Internet speed in the United States.

MAINE, USA — With thousands of Mainers learning and working at home amid the coronavirus pandemic, internet connection has become perhaps more important than ever. That's a message people around the state are hoping is made clear, as the need for improved broadband statewide persists.

A recent study released by High Speed Internet indicates that in 2020, Maine ranks third for slowest average internet speed in the United States. It's a dismal statistic, but it's not surprising to the many people in rural and urban locations who struggle with loading pages and failing connectivity every day.

"On a day-to-day basis, you never know what you're going to get," Kaitlin Young, a music educator at RSU 28 in Dover-Foxcroft, explained to NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. For the past couple of months, she has been trying to connect with her students online, which has been challenging at times because of the inconsistency of Maine's Internet. 

"I think there's a great deal of grieving that is going on across our state for the inability to connect with our students," Young expressed.

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It's why music educators around the state came together with the Maine Department of Education and Educate Maine to create The Learning Space, a program that airs every weekday on Maine Public Television at 12:30 p.m., running from April 27 until June 12. It provides third to fifth grade students free, over-the-air access to lessons from their teachers. 

"This is one small thing that we can do to get into the homes of our students and at least help them feel a little more engaged and connected," Heather Whitaker, an alternative education teacher at Gorham Middle School, told NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. 

On Friday, May 15, Governor Janet Mills announced alongside the Maine Department of Education that all Maine students will now have access to the Internet. That comes after data from schools statewide indicated almost 22,000 students have been having trouble connecting during this period of remote learning, either because they need a wireless contract or they need a device.

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Some Mainers are insisting that these numbers can no longer be ignored, since weak broadband has been an issue in our state for years. It's why Mission Broadband is conducting a statewide survey to collect data that will find gaps in broadband infrastructure. 

"There's really three pillars, right? Is it available? Is it affordable? (Is it) adequate?" John Dougherty, the vice president of Mission Broadband, explained about what the survey is working to determine. He added that the survey consists of seven brief questions and has only been up for a few weeks, so they are hoping to get more responses. It's also anonymous and will be up until June 1. 

In eastern Maine, a mission to improve broadband is already in the works. Machias Savings Bank has partnered with Axiom (an Internet Service Provider headquartered in Machias) to bring high speed internet to the town's downtown. Construction is expected to begin this month, and it will make those Internet connections available to 50 businesses and 30 homes. 

Christian Lyford is the chief operating officer of Machias Savings Bank. He says the project is designed to revitalize Machias and improve working life for his employees.

"The Internet is a key piece," Lyford expressed. "We can have all the greatest technology, but if we can’t connect, then it’s not going to work."

The main message these Mainers all seem to agree on -- the idea that connection is no longer a luxury. It's a necessity, made even more apparent by COVID-19. 

"It has certainly brought it to the forefront the gaps that existed for years," Dougherty acknowledged. "They continue to exist, but the pandemic has definitely exposed the gaps and said, “Okay, this is time from an economic standpoint, from an educational standpoint -- we’ve got to do something."

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