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The Portland Press Herald - Maine Voices: Linking Rural Areas to the Internet Offers Economic Hope

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"Time and experience have verified to a demonstration, the public utility of internal improvements. That the poorest and most thinly populated countries would be greatly benefited by the opening of good roads, and in the clearing of navigable streams within their limits, is what no person will deny." -- Abraham Lincoln, in 1832, when he was a candidate for the Illinois legislature at age 23

Three quick stories:

As in most things, Lincoln, even at the age of 23, was right. "Internal improvements" -- publicly funded roads, canals and bridges -- were the basic transportation infrastructure that enabled the new country to grow and prosper, and support for such projects remained a mainstay of Lincoln's entire political career.

Similarly, 100 years later, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act, bringing electricity for the first time to the nation's countryside, enabling a huge expansion of economic opportunity for people outside urban centers. It took federal action to bring this about, for much the same reason that broadband Internet isn't available in many rural areas today -- the distance between houses makes "wiring up" more expensive.

And finally, in 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower initiated the greatest public works project in the history of the world, the American interstate highway system. Funded 90 percent by the federal government, our vast system of interconnected highways has created an enormous engine of economic development in every corner of the country, certainly including Maine.

The point of these stories is that supporting and often initiating infrastructure development -- whether it's the rutted roads of Lincoln's day, the multi-lane highways of our own, or the lonely wires that brought light to places like Washington County and the rest of rural America -- is an essential function of government, essential to both economic growth and social cohesion.

The common denominator is that these projects have literally brought us together in ways commonplace and profound.

And now it's time to step up and do it again.

Today, high-speed Internet is the major channel for information and interconnection -- enabling an explosion of economic activity -- just as roads, bridges, canals and electric lines were in the past. But the key is the quality of the connection, and in rural Maine -- and huge areas of the rest of the country -- we're stuck in the rutted roads of Lincoln's day, if not worse.

Connection speeds are slow or nonexistent and the inevitable result is economic decline and a loss of people, particularly young people.

High-speed Internet is no longer a nice add-on for business; it's a necessity, on a par with electricity and heat. And I have been told by Realtors that younger buyers simply will not commit to a house in an area with slow or no Internet service. How's that as a recipe for out-migration?

In Maine, we've recently completed the "Three Ring Binder" project, which has created a super high-speed fiber-optic corridor linking all areas of the state. That's the good news.

The bad news is that tens of thousands of our citizens (and businesses) are still cut off by the "last mile" problem -- the lack of a link between the new main line and their homes and businesses. It's as if we built I-95 but there were no roads to get from it to our doors. Those lucky enough to be near the corridor will be in good shape; those farther away are out of luck.

My proposal is a new rural broadband initiative, modeled after the Rural Electrification Act of the 1930s, which would support and encourage the wiring (or wireless-ing) of rural America.

And how would it be paid for? Let's start with better use of the existing Connect America Fund, which already generates $4 billion a year for just this purpose.

This isn't a visionary, pie-in-the-sky idea; it's more like catch-up with countries like Singapore, Spain, South Korea, France and Finland -- not to mention Massachusetts and Vermont. The fact is that our failure on this isn't just a disadvantage, it's an economic death sentence for rural America.

There's a lot of talk about what we can do to create more jobs, particularly outside our cities, and the formula includes everything from upgrading education to a more rational tax system to streamlining regulation to better job training and retraining initiatives.

But connecting rural America to the 21st-century economy has to be high on the list. Unless that happens, and soon, nothing else works. Mr. Lincoln, I think, would agree.

Angus King, a former Maine governor, is an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate.


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