You can tell that you’re in Maine when most of the traffic on the highway alongside you are caravans of logging trucks! After a journey across the country on Tuesday night, I knew that my last stop was Portland, Maine because I was the only person boarding the place in the Detroit Metro airport who did not have hiking boots and a backpack on. I was a tad jealous!
Josh Seidemann, our Smart Rural Community (SRC) guru, and I met up on Wednesday morning and let the adventure begin….first stop (after coffee, of course) was Waterville, Maine where we stopped at their lovely, local library to await the arrival of Senator King – the Independent Senator from Maine and one of the founding members of the Senate Rural Broadband Caucus along with FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, on her third day back on the job after being sworn in for her FCC role 2.0 on Friday evening.
At the library, we met with folks who are running various job placement and training services as they shared how the broadband connection at the library was a starting point for much of the community. Normally I would think that was a platitude but Josh and I hit the library prior to its opening and were stunned at the number of local residents – from students, to business people to homeless members of the community – were waiting outside for those doors to open right at 10 a.m. Free WiFi, free phone access for local and emergency calls and a row of computer banks really make this location the center of the community.
Then it was on to Unity, Maine – home of NTCA member UniTel, and SRC awardee. This trip really came together around making the SRC presentation to the team at UniTel and their community partners and what a treat it was to be joined by such great policy dignitaries. In Unity, we met with a couple who have started an organic farm and they shared how broadband plays a key role in their marketing to restaurants in Boston and surrounding areas and how important it was to have technology to keep the young farmers willing to engage in the profession. We also munched on some pretty excellent carrots and turnips.
Then made our way to the Unity Foundation where we met with former UniTel CEO, now Unity Foundation President, Larry Steers. (Also apparently known as “cool Larry” to some of the folks we met in Waterville….) and UniTel CEO, Laurie Osgood, the driving force behind the Smart Rural Community designation. We met with folks in a digital literacy course and even got a nibble of a lobster roll as we compared notes with the UniTel team. (My visit to Maine was now complete…) Then the highlight of the afternoon was awarding UniTel their SRC designation and sharing from their application the difference that their broadband and partnership makes to those in the education, economic development and health care community.
Senator King,Commissioner Rosenworcel and myself then engaged in a nearly 2 hour listening session with members of the community, state public officials and other providers on rural broadband. The range of topics was far and wide but I was particularly struck by the number of health care providers who were attending and their strong plea for support of telemedicine services. After the 5th doctor stood up to share some thoughts, I started to get nervous that there might not be anyone available in the area that afternoon if there was a medical emergency! Senator King actually has posted the discussion to his Facebook page for posterity.
The conversation was so robust that Josh and I had to literally run across the highway back to our car to ensure that we made it back to Portland in time for our flights out that night.
All in all, a great adventure and I look forward to the follow up discussions with both of these committed public servants who really do care deeply about rural access.