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Why meeting Gov. Mills' broadband goals could be a challenge

In the State of the State address, the governor made it clear she doesn't want Maine waiting longer for statewide broadband coverage.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Editor's note: The video attached to this story is a recap of Gov. Janet Mills' 2021 State of the State address on Feb. 10. 

Karem Durdag, president of GWI Internet, loved what he heard from Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday.

"I am enthusiastically and maniacally in favor of it," he said of Mills' bold promise.

In the State of the State address, the governor made it clear she doesn't want Maine waiting longer for statewide broadband coverage.

"I pledge to you," Mills said. "That everyone in Maine who wants high-speed Internet will be able to get it by 2024, just two short years from now."

The goal, Derdag said, is ambitious but possible and necessary.

"I think the chief executive has issued a call for the day, and it is our responsibility as citizens, as a society in Maine, to answer that call," he said.

Maine has been trying for years to expand broadband. Still, the goal seems closer than ever, thanks to a large amount of federal funding and the creation of the new Maine Connectivity Authority to oversee the project. 

Andrew Butcher, president of the new state agency, said many parts of Maine have slow internet service. And roughly 80,000 Mainers have no access to broadband. Many of those are in rural areas, but he said there are pockets of limited service in most areas of the state.

"When we look at our needs and strategy for our state, we have to make sure nobody is left behind," Butcher said.

The authority is already at work developing the plans for expanding service to meet the 2024 goal. 

Butcher said working with local communities and groups to develop the right plans is an essential part of the process and that the agency is starting to do that, even as it works to hire staff and open offices. 

He said the state would need to use all available technologies to reach the maximum number of people. However, the preferred method is extending fiber-optic lines and connections, which he added, is still regarded as the gold standard for fast internet service.

But given the seemingly slow pace of broadband growth up to now, does Maine have the workforce to reach everyone in just two years?

The answer, said Butcher, isn't simple. But he agreed more trained workers would be needed.

"Our challenges in meeting this goal are significant, whether its workforce, whether its supply chain," Butcher said. "From a workforce standpoint, we need multi-sector collaborations, which involve on-the-job training, creating a pathway for employment for community college participants, and [prioritizing] partnerships with academic institutions."

Kerem Durdag said companies like his need to do some of the training but said the state is already working with the community colleges and a national industry group to develop an effective training program for fiber-optic technicians.

"We need more hands," he said. "Depending on all the projects, possibly hundreds more. But that's okay because the jobs this will create will last a long time."

Both experts agreed that the planning and training needed to get moving quickly to meet the 2024 goal and get decent broadband to more Mainers.

A challenge, they agreed, but also exciting and essential.

"This is going to redefine, for Maine, what it means to be part of the 22nd and 23rd centuries," Durdag said, showing his passion for the idea.

"That big?" NEWS CENTER Maine asked.

"That big," he replied, then added, "Think of all the people who have not had internet because they have been too poor, or they have been marginalized, that will now be able to get it. This is huge. And I couldn't be more excited the governor said, 'Let's get it done by 2024.' Let's get it done! We have to."

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