By Trevor Jones
This article originally appeared in the Portland Press Herald.
Even people who are most concerned about the state of broadband Internet access across Maine agree that high speed access for our state’s schools and libraries is a bright spot, thanks to the Maine Schools and Library Network or MSLN.
In fact, a 2015 study by the nonprofit advocacy group EducationSuperHighway ranked Maine 5th in the nation in providing broadband access to schools, with 97 percent meeting the FCC recommendation of 100 kbps of data transfer per student.
We agree with the February 15 Press Herald editorial (“Maine should go to bat for rural internet funding”) and with many state policymakers: We need to strengthen and stabilize funding for the MSLN, which is especially vital in many of Maine’s underserved, rural communities.
However, lawmakers should seek to accomplish that goal through a broad-based funding solution and avoid disproportionately burdening Maine’s over-65 population, many of whom are on fixed incomes.
The MSLN was established because of a 1995 settlement between a very large telephone company, NYNEX, and the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The PUC found NYNEX had overcharged consumers and the telecom giant promised to build high speed connectivity to every school in Maine with the excess earnings.
To cover the $9 million annual operating cost of the MSLN, the Maine Legislature established the Maine Telecommunications Education Assistance Fund (“MTEAF”) in 1999. The MTEAF was funded through an assessment on services nearly everyone was using to communicate at the time: intrastate and interstate landline and wireless telephone service.
Let’s look at what has transpired since then.
- Since 1999, homes with landline phones have declined from a high of nearly 100% to an estimated less than 50% in 2016.
- Over the same period, communications preferences have changed, with consumers becoming much more inclined to use text messaging or social networks as opposed to making phone calls. From 2005 to 2011, text messages went from 5% of total mobile communication to over 50%. However, communications by text is not assessed and does not contribute to supporting the Maine School and Library Network, so the shift in communication preferences has put considerable stress on funding.
- Broadband internet usage has grown significantly. In 2000, only 1 percent of adults in the U.S. used a home broadband connection. Today, that number has increased to 73 percent. So, while the Maine Telecommunications Education Assistance Fund is used to bring broadband service to schools, broadband subscribers are not paying any portion of the cost.
Eighteen years ago, state policymakers created a broad-based funding mechanism (telephone calls) to support the important “public good” of having our schools and libraries connected to accessible high speed Internet service. Today, however, the number of people communicating by telephone calls has dropped dramatically.
The initial funding for the MSLN was successful because it was broad-based, applying to services everyone used. As we look at solutions today, we should take a similar approach. To that end, we should keep a few other facts in mind.
- Mainers 65 and older are 35% less likely to have a broadband connection.
- Those over 65 are 75% less likely to use text messaging on a regular basis.
- Those 65 and over are also 7 times more likely to still have a landline at home.
Looking at those numbers, it’s easy to see how the 18-year-old Maine Telecommunications Education Assistance Fund model has shifted from a broad-based system to a narrow one that puts a disproportionate burden on the elderly. Trying to stabilize funding by increasing surcharges on only telephone calls will accelerate the decline of voice service and increasingly place the cost of the statewide school and library network on Maine’s elderly, many of whom are on fixed incomes and can least afford it.
Bringing Equity and Stability to the Maine School and Library Network
Clearly, we need to stabilize the MTEAF and preserve broadband service for our schools and libraries. We believe policymakers can stabilize funding by including revenue from today’s broadly used communications technology, including text messaging and broadband service.
We appreciate the work of legislators working to stabilize and strengthen the Maine School and Library Network and look forward to working with Rep. Martin Grohman and others in the Maine House, Senate and the Administration to find a constructive solution.
In the end, any bill, including LD 256, must broaden the base of funding sources and avoid putting the burden disproportionately on Maine’s aging population.
Trevor Jones is a Bangor Maine native with 20 years of experience in the telecommunications industry. He now serves as Director of Marketing, Sales and Product Development for OTELCO, which is based in New Gloucester Maine and serves customers in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and West Virginia.