Friday, March 7, 2014
A state task force last month released a report that recommends solutions for Maine’s lagging utilization of broadband Internet. Bringing faster broadband to more people has implications for the future success of economic development, education, health care and government, and the task force says its recommendations, implemented over a 10-year span, could add more than 11,000 jobs and generate more than $70 million in state and local tax revenue.
According to the report, around 93 percent of Maine homes have access to broadband, and around 75 percent of homes are connected.
The state, however, ranks second to last in terms of Internet speed, meaning conditions in many areas are not ideal for services that will play a significant role in the economy of the near future, such as telemedicine, remote education and real-time data collection.
Correcting those problems will be expensive and take time. The task force rightly suggests ways the state can encourage the private sector to foot the bill, and users to choose the form of delivery, by increasing the demand for faster, more reliable Internet service.
But the task force’s first two recommendations can and should be implemented as soon as possible.
The first would provide a three-year tax credit to small and midsize businesses for Internet-related training and marketing.
Amazingly, in an era when 97 percent of American consumers go online for goods and services, 59 percent of Maine’s small businesses do not have a website. More than half of those cited cost as the main reason why.
A tax break and free training would get those businesses online, creating increased productivity and access to new customers. According to Planning Decisions Inc., a Portland-based company that worked on the report, simply reaching the national average for business Internet usage would increase annual sales in the state by $50 million. Improving the Internet presence for one-third of the smaller businesses would increase sales by nearly $270 million and support around 1,500 new jobs.
The second recommendation calls for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to seek a federal waiver to allow MaineCare reimbursement for in-home technologies, so that some elderly patients can receive care at home rather than at costly long-term care facilities.
Dr. Chip Teel of Damariscotta uses telemedicine over broadband connections, along with home visits and transportation help, to care for elderly patients at home at a cost of $5,000 per year, as compared to $90,000 per year for a bed at a nursing home.
Using that same model, the task force says it is possible to reduce the proportion of elderly residents on MaineCare receiving long-term care in a facility from 65 percent now to 20 percent by 2020, for a savings of $250 million annually.
Even if the state were to fall short of that goal, it would mean thousands of elderly Mainers would be able to stay in their homes longer, at a savings of millions to taxpayers.
A third idea, to use the Maine State Universal Service Fund to support broadband service, also should be considered immediately.
The remaining recommendations — increase data analytics training, develop online education opportunities through the University of Maine system, switch to digital textbooks in schools, and turn the Maine Turnpike into a technologically advanced “Smart Road” — all have merit.
But they require the buy-in of diverse constituencies and the kind of will and focus not present at this time in Maine politics. Perhaps the winner of next year’s race for governor can make improving Maine’s technological infrastructure a priority.
Until then, the state should start with the first, smaller steps, and build from there.