One of the best things about living in Maine, at least in my eyes, is the sense of being off the grid. As someone who grew up in central and northern Maine, I have found comfort in the seclusion of the state’s natural places. However, in a society that has unified the physical and the digital, these areas are becoming even more marginalized by their inability to access those digital environments due to a state-wide lack of internet access.
I am not trying to say that some Mainers are especially worse off because they aren’t able to make an Instagram account; in fact, my personal opinion is that it would be just the opposite. However, someone who does not have access to consistent and reliable internet is then, in many ways, cut off from modern society. The effects of the digital divide are vast, and Maine is among the worst states in the country in terms of internet access.
Mission Broadband, a Maine consulting company that is working with individual communities to boost broadband internet access, conducted a survey of 2,451 people and asked them about their home internet, and the results are unsettling.
Of the respondents, just over half said they were happy with their internet, where just under half said the opposite. It is important to realize that this is not just a matter of whether or not someone has access to the internet at home. We must consider whether an area has any connection options, if a given person is able to tap into those resources, if it is affordable and what that connection is capable of.
I grew up in Cornville, Maine. As one could probably gather from the name, this town is pretty small and rural, and yes, there is a lot of corn too. While my house had pretty reliable internet access, I cannot say the same for many of my friends. I know some people who would only have a stable connection for an hour or two a day, if they were able to get carriers to supply to their home at all. One of my friends has never had Netflix because of this lack of connection. Can you imagine? I prefer not to.
These matters do extend far beyond not being able to binge “New Girl” every day for a month, though. What seems to be the most pressing issue, and one which has both been brought to light and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is the matter of education.
According to Government Technology, kids without an internet connection are receiving a worse education due to their lack of resources compared to their more connected peers, which can also lead to academic struggles and fewer economic opportunities in the future. Researchers from Michigan State University found that students who don’t have internet access at home demonstrate serious lag behind their peers who have broadband access.
Consider for a moment trying to navigate modern society without networked technology and resources. This is how we access information about colleges, jobs, financial aid, insurance, housing and the list goes on. My plan for finding a job post-graduation is to devote some serious time to building a LinkedIn profile. If I didn’t have access to this service, I really don’t know what I would do.
Ensuring better internet access would also strengthen the economy. One study from 2007 by the Brookings Institution showed that by increasing internet availability by 1%, employment could increase by 0.3%, creating jobs for 405,000 people.
Upping broadband internet statewide would have lasting benefits, and it is an issue that warrants attention. Regardless of one’s feelings on the benefits and costs of a digital society, we have already crossed the threshold of no return. While it might be hard to want more digital connection during a time when we are all quite sick of technology-based interaction, ensuring more broadband access would be transformative for Maine’s rural populations.