MACHIAS — When Lisa Hanscom inquired about switching carriers, the internet service provider she had called told her serving customers in Roque Bluffs doesn’t make good business sense.
Then, the provider hung up on her.
The Roque Bluffs resident co-owns Welch Farm with her husband, Wayne, and runs two Airbnb rental properties. More than once, she said, she has lost contact with a customer because of unreliable connectivity.
“I am unable to increase the quality and quantity of my business because of the poor internet speeds,” she told U.S. Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) and others during a Sept. 6 congressional subcommittee hearing in Machias on broadband access, or lack thereof, in rural areas.
Golden, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Contracting and Infrastructure, is in the process of drafting legislation known as the “Last Mile Act” to help provide broadband access, which is high-speed internet, to some of the more than 19 million Americans living in rural areas who are still without it. This includes 80,000 people in Golden’s district, which covers all of Maine except for a swath from Augusta to the southern Maine border.
Golden’s legislation, which is aimed at helping small businesses, would provide grants to broadband providers and small business owners to offset the high cost of the needed infrastructure and hookup. Business owners would have to provide a 20 percent match.
Small businesses in rural areas that have reliable broadband internet bring in twice as much revenue per employee as those that don’t. They also experience more revenue growth over time and are more likely to create jobs, Golden said.
Testifying on behalf of Downeast Broadband Utility, Chris Loughlin said the “backbone” of high-speed internet connectivity is fiber optic cable, but private companies have instead installed cable, which provides an internet connection through a cable modem; DSL and wireless connections to homes and businesses, and they’ve done so using public funds.
“Wireless keeps being touted, especially in hilly, mountainous states like Maine but, in reality, this does not work,” said Loughlin, who is also Baileyville town manager.
ConnectME, a government authority created by the state of Maine to bring about universal broadband access, “has given $10 million to companies building these wireless networks as well as DSL and cable,” he said, adding that the technologies are outdated and don’t work well.
Timothy McAfee, CEO of Pioneer Broadband in Houlton, said one of the barriers to connectivity is the fact that fiber infrastructure can be prohibitively expensive.
Mark Ouellette, president and CEO of Axiom Technologies, concurred.
“Affordability is a significant barrier for small rural businesses to connect and obtain better speeds and reliability,” he said. A less-than-optimal connection impedes productivity and can prevent small businesses from accessing online cloud-based tools which are becoming the norm.
Ouellette, who said a lack of reliable broadband connectivity is “impeding growth,” added that even when fiber is available, it costs $2,000 to $10,000 for a customer to connect, plus monthly fees of more than $100 a month.
McAfee said the issue of affordability must be addressed.
“Existing federal grant programs are very difficult to obtain,” he said. “Their intentions are good but they are not designed for every situation. They don’t always make sense either.”
For example, the USDA Community Connect Grant will pay for construction of a network that serves every home in an area but requires the operator to build and staff a community center with computers and internet access. Funds from the Connect America Fund Phase II are being used for outdated “copper” infrastructure, he said.
“That seems like a complete waste of time to me,” McAfee said.
After the hearing, Hanscom and several others told Golden it would be a shame to provide high-speed internet to businesses without offering residents living nearby the chance to hook up.
They mentioned high-speed access is already available in certain spots, such as libraries, but not to those living next door or down the street.
Parents are forced to take their schoolchildren away from home to complete homework assignments. Business people often visit library parking lots in order to upload and download large files.
Golden said he would consider their feedback and that he scheduled the hearing at the University of Maine at Machias campus to make a point.
“The whole purpose of the hearing was to talk about rural communities that are struggling with broadband,” he said, adding Washington County residents have told him federal legislators rarely come to the area. “I came here to make the point that we do care.”
Several people at the hearing recalled the last time a congressional hearing took place in Washington County was in 1971.