The Aroostook County Farm Bureau was the host of a broadband Internet conference on Oct. 26. The event, held at the Presque Isle Inn and Convention Center, focused on the challenges and opportunities relating to assuring that farmers and other rural residents and businesses get access to broadband network services. The event was attended by farmers, leadership from Farm Bureau, as well as many representatives from the broadband provider community. including Fairpoint Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Pioneer Broadband, an Aroostook County firm that was the primary sponsor of the conference. Also in attendance were representatives from the offices of Senators Susan Collins and Angus King, and Rep. Bruce Poliquin, all supporters of funding for broadband expansion in Maine. The program was organized by Cumberland County Farm Bureau member Theresa Kelly, a retired computer professional who now operates a small farm in Pownal.
The meeting was opened by Dr. Alicyn Smart, the new Executive Director of the Maine Farm Bureau, who highlighted the importance of access to broadband for the farming community. She was followed by Rep. Robert Saucier, of Presque Isle, who reminded the audience of the significant amount of legislative activity that occurred on this topic in the last session. More than 35 bills were put forward, including Rep. Saucier’s LD 826 which he sponsored on behalf of Farm Bureau. While many of the bills failed during the last session of the Legislature, Rep. Saucier’s bill, which seeks to increase the funding for the ConnectME Authority, was held over to the 2016 session and Rep. Saucier will continue to champion this cause.
The remaining time of the event was split into two sections. The first was focused on medical programs made possible by high-speed broadband.
Telehealth, which is coming to the area. was introduced by Andrew Solomon, Northeast Telehealth Resource Center Project Manager, who joined the event via video conference. He demonstrated the wide range of technologies being developed and deployed, including those that allow patients to interact with their providers, both hospitals and doctors, without ever leaving their homes.
Leslie Anderson, of the Cary Medical Center in Caribou, continued the discussion to outline details of the Maine Rural Health Innovation Network. The network, being coordinated out of the Cary Medical Center, involves 10 hospitals from Aroostook, Penobscot, Washington and Hancock Counties. This effort is funded by a 3-year grant awarded in 2014. The hospitals involved are using the Internet to connect, allowing them to network some of their processes to achieve efficiencies, expand access to health services and strengthen population health in rural Maine. Their early focus is on chronic diseases which require frequent patient interaction, such as Diabetes and COPD. Their “virtual platform” will let them integrate the care being provided to a patient by multiple doctors in multiple physical locations, as well as access expertise “from away” via videoconference.
The second section of the event was focused on the general state of broadband in Maine and Aroostook County. Maine’s Public Advocate Tim Schneider described services his agency provides in representing the interest of utility customers. He reviewed the varying benchmarks for definitions of service by various agencies, including the Federal Communications Commission and the Maine ConnectME Authority, and he highlighted the wide disparity of service access experienced in Maine. A significant investment in library network services has created “kiosks” of service in many remote areas but one has to be close to those buildings to access them and larger municipalities, such as Portland, can routinely get high speed services from high- volume providers. Jeff Nevins of Fairpoint then reviewed the funding his organization has received from the FCC. Fairpoint has elected to take $13.3 million of annual funding for the next five years, which requires it to provide service to 35,500 unserved locations in Maine. The plan is to bring 10/1 megabits –per-second service — the FCC standard – to these unserved areas at a price comparable to that in urban areas. The buildout needs to be 40 percent complete by the end of 2017.
Tim Schneider then hosted a panel session. The panelists were Tim Goff of the Fort Fairfield Chamber of Commerce, David Maxwell of the ConnectME Authority, Don Flewelling of Pioneer Broadband and Jeff Nevins of Fairpoint. This was an interactive session with the attendees and the discussion was wide ranging. The panelists noted the challenge for consumers is to influence how broadband is being deployed and how to understand the resources that are available to a community.
(Farm Bureau’s definition of “community” in this case is that the state’s agricultural community is not related to municipal boundaries, but to economic and social factors that include rural people in all areas of the state.)
The meeting was closed with an invitation to attendees to continue the conversation over dinner at the ACFB banquet which followed. Feedback from the participants at the conference was positive, though all recognized that there is much work to be done and that partnerships among all the citizens and businesses of the rural areas will be needed to ensure the right service gets delivered at the right price.