Knox County needs community-owned internet

Fri, 11/05/2021 - 11:00am

While we appreciate Knox County Commissioner Meriwether’s calmer tone on broadband (LTE Oct. 19, 2021), we are disappointed that she continues to rely on erroneous information as to the availability of broadband to Knox County residents.

She states that, “from my research, 98.9 percent of Knox County residents have access to at least 25 Mbps, and 94 percent have access to speeds of at least 100Mbps.”

She quotes no source for her research. However, because she has made this assertion before and referred to the website “Broadband Now” as her source, we previously provided her with information on the unreliability of the Broadband Now data.

As we explained in a Oct. 8, 2021 email to the commissioners:

The Broadband Now information on speeds available ... is from the notoriously inaccurate FCC maps – these are based on provider promised speeds, not the actual speeds users get. As CNET said in a review of this issue: “The faulty FCC national broadband map has essentially made millions of Americans without fast internet ‘invisible’ ..., and unless thedata improves, they’re likely to remain so.” (Feb. 19, 2021).

In addition, the FCC maps list an area as “served” if only one house in the census tract is listed as served by the private internet provider. Thus, Commissioner Meriwether’s continued statement that all but 1.1%b of Knox County has adequate broadband service is based on faulty, unreliable data, which has been pointed out to her before.

All of those working on broadband issues in Maine understand that the FCC maps cannot be relied on to determine who has service and at what speed.

Fortunately, we have the Maine Broadband Coalition, that has been working on developing reliable, actual data on speeds received by Maine households and businesses. A review of that data for Knox County, as presented to the commissioners in the Rockport/MIDC application, indicates that 54.7% of the premises receive less than 25 mbps download, and 43.2% of the premises receive less than 3 mbps upload.

Over 50% of Knox County locations do not even meet the egregiously low FCC standard of 25 mbps download speed.

Thus, contrary to Commissioner Meriwether’s statement, there are clearly wide swaths of unserved and underserved households and businesses in Knox County. The Rockport/MIDC application demonstrated how it would bring service to those households in the Rockport area that are unserved and underserved. As the Treasury Guidance recognizes, in order to reach unserved and underserved residences and businesses it may be necessary to run the fiber infrastructure by households and businesses that could be deemed served and that is expressly allowed under the rules.

It is ironic that Commissioner Meriwether states that she is voting against funding broadband because Knox County residents have adequate service when she and the other commissioners prohibited any public comment from Knox County residents on that very question.

Those residents who took time off from work to provide information to the commissioners on their lack of adequate and reliable broadband service to participate in 21st century opportunities, like remote work, education, and telehealth, were forbidden from talking at a public meeting.

Instead, the commissioners warmly welcomed a Spectrum lobbyist and relied on her to tell them about the quality and reliability of broadband service available to Knox County residents.

Commissioner Meriwether’s apparent refusal to listen to real facts and real information about the need for reliable internet in Knox County, even to the point of violating state law on public comment, undercuts her claim that she voted against the broadband projects because she believes (in the face of all evidence to the contrary) that Knox County residents already receive adequate service.

As she has said previously, she believes that Spectrum will do just as good a job as the local nonprofit Midcoast Internet Development Corporation of providing affordable and universal internet access to Knox County residents. Yet, we know that we have the current poor quality and unreliable broadband service we have in Knox County because we have allowed unregulated monopolies like Spectrum to provide an essential service – one that must be universally available and affordable to ensure digital equity.

Tellingly, Maine was recently ranked as 47th in the country for internet speed. Maine’s current for profit internet providers have no incentive to increase speeds or availability, since Maine has also been ranked 49th in the country for lack of choice in internet providers.

As communities around the country and in Maine are learning, community-owned internet is the best solution to achieve high speed, affordable, and universal internet service.

The Rockport/MIDC application asked for less than 10% ($750,000) of the County’s $7.7 million grant from the federal government – a grant that was based on the County’s population. This amount would allow us to begin the work of building a community-owned fiber internet system that will be built in phases and ultimately benefit many communities in Knox County.

All profits from the system will be returned to the locally owned fiber network to expand and improve broadband service. Camden, Thomaston and Rockland supported the Rockport/MIDC application; these 4 communities represent 46% of the County’s population. Thus, 46% of the County’s population asked for less than 10% of the county ARPA money, to bring a vital equity and economic development resource to our area.

In each of these communities over 80-90% of the residents supported the creation of the community-based network. We urge the County to listen to its residents and support community-owned internet by providing the requested seed money to fund this first phase.

Debra Hall and Denise Munger live in Rockport. Munger is a Rockport Select Board member and Hall is a former Rockport Select Board member. Munger represents Rockport on the
Midcoast Internet Development Corporation, and Hall is the chair of that organization.