Maine is one of the most rural states in the nation. So when it comes to broadband deployment, there are special challenges to ensuring the digital age reaches all. On this episode of Broadband Conversations, listeners will meet Peggy Schaffer, the woman leading the effort at Maine's Broadband Authority to bring internet connectivity, and the economic opportunities that come with it, to every community in the state.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Welcome to Broadband conversations. My name is Jessica Rosenworcel and I'm a member of the Federal Communications Commission and this is the podcast where I get to talk to leading women across the technology, innovation and media industries. You get to hear what they're working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing. And the topic of today's episode, well, you could say it hits pretty close to home for this podcast because we're talking about broadband. So this is truly a broadband conversation. And now more than ever broadband is critical it's not a luxury. This is how we connect with each other. This is how we grow our communities and how we're going to build our economy for future generations. But far too many of us are being left offline. The latest numbers from the FCC show that 21 million Americans lack broadband access. But those numbers I think can use some work because I think they radically understate the problem. In fact, there are other studies that show over 160 million of us do not access the internet at broadband speed. So, we have a whole bunch of Americans that are at risk of being left behind. And while we're looking at this in Washington, we also have a lot of good people working on this issue in the states and today I am joined by one of those people.
And I'm so excited to have her. I've got Peggy Schaffer and Peggy is joining us from Maine where she is the director of a broadband authority in Maine and I want her to tell you more about it. And I'm going to let her tell you about herself and all the work she has done to help lead Maine's efforts to bring connectivity to all. So Peggy, thank you for joining me.
MS. SCHAFFER: Thanks for having me.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Alright we're going to kick things off. I want you to talk about where you are today, but more importantly, how you got there and how you found that connecting everyone with broadband in Maine was a professional and personal passion.
MS. SCHAFFER: You know like many people you end up with a not straight path. I actually started doing community organizing for the Girls Scouts. And then as a volunteer, started to organize campaigns. And I ran four successful, five successful state house campaigns, three successful state senate campaigns and in that process one of the women I helped elect became the first woman Speaker of the House. And when she became Speaker of the House, she brought me into state government. Um we have term limits in Maine so I got dumped, after she was term limited, I went to work for the Department of Economic and Community Development as their lobbyist which was really when I got to understand the importance of economic development in communities. So that was in the early 2000s um so my candidate, Lib Mitchell, came back into the Senate when she became Majority Leader of the Senate. I went to work for her as chief of staff and when she became Senate President, I went to work for her as chief of staff at the Senate President's office. So, she is still the only woman I know who has been both Speaker of the House and President of Senate in the United States. So, having a mentor who has that kind of leadership capacity um and ability, especially a woman was really important to me. And really opened doors about how women can lead and do lead in a way that's collaborative and I think I brought that effort to the broadband work that I've been doing. Um I sort of started in broadband as a small business advocate over in the Secretary of State's office when a small internet service provider came to me and said I want to expand my business and I can't because we have issues with pole attachments, we issues with no funding and um so I became involved in the process and started a group called the Maine Broadband Coalition with a bunch of other people across the state really it is really a collaborative effort.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, who is in that commission? I'm wondering who comes together, you know, not just comes to Washington and lobbies for change but people who come together locally and say we want to connect more people in our state. What does that coalition look like?
MS. SCHAFFER: So it is a variety, a wide variety from across the state. It is small businesses, it is internet service providers, it is town managers, it is town selectmen, um it is frustrated individuals who can't get connected. It's a whole smattering of people and I think, what the Maine Broadband Coalition does is provides for them—it was the first time we had a consumer voice advocating before the legislature, which I think is really important that legislators hear not just from the big telecom companies and the big cable companies but actually people from their communities who are organized around the idea about how important connectivity is to their community. I think that's one of the things that has made Maine have an extensive amount of momentum not just the broadband coalition but the people coming together in their communities to have conversations about why this is important to us and why it's important to our community. You know I often say in Maine you know, survival for many Maine communities is optional. There's no guarantee that many rural Maine communities will survive. So for communities to come together and sort of figure out that broadband is the key piece of infrastructure for them to retain their young people, for them to attract new people, to keep people in their homes as they age and as they have disabilities, and to have access for small businesses, and to start companies and actually do work for other companies that aren't even in state. It's a very gratifying thing to see people sort of come together in their communities and figure out that they really want to get connected. Because they want communities to thrive.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes, so lets--how about this. You mentioned you know rural Maine. I'd love it if you talk a little bit more about the state, what broadband looks like and you know, for people who perhaps people who have never been to Maine before, what the landscape is like and what that means for broadband deployment.
MS. SCHAFFER: So, we are uh the most rural state in the country. We are the least dense population east of the Mississippi and we are the oldest state in the nation.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's a lot of superlatives.
MS. SCHAFFER: It is a lot of superlatives and you know for broadband the big things are distance and density. And we have a lot of distance and not a lot of density. So, it makes it really expensive to expand broadband to people's communities. Maine is a variety, a wide verity of geographic, so, we have big mountains that run through the middle of it. Our coastline is rocky and steep and full of lots of peninsulas and islands.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: And beautiful, also so we'll just point that out.
MS. SCHAFFER: It is gorgeous. So you drive down a long road to the end of a peninsula and there's a little village there that because they have a little harbor, people lobster out of there, they fish out of there, so there's a community as a result of that, but for broadband, the connectivity you have to go down that long road and then when you get to the end, there's nothing there. It's not like you can loop back and get somewhere else, because you're looking at the ocean. So those are all significate problems for us. Also, we have about 15 unbridged islands in Maine and some of them are 15 miles off the coast and some of them are 10 miles off the coast. So it's a challenge to make sure those communities have some level of connectivity because if you are 15 miles off the coast of Maine and your connected by a ferry service that runs three or four times a day um, in the winter it's like 2 times a day, you need access to telehealth, you need access to the global economy for a whole variety of things and so those are significant challenges to how we bring broadband to every corner of Maine.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: It's like if you can figure it out in Maine, you're going to be able to figure it out everywhere.
MS. SCHAFFER: I think so, I really think so.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So give me some examples of some solutions you're seeing in different areas of Maine. You know, from the rocky coast to the inland to the mountains. What are the things that your finding are working?
MS. SCHAFFER: So I really we started Connect Maine Authority started about 2015 doing what we call community planning grants. So we gave communities grants to really begin to talk about how they were doing broadband and some of the grants are quite big areas so all of Oxford and all of Franklin County these are big counties in the western part of the state, very rural, very mountainous and those communities over the last three or four years have begun to pull together plans for connectivity.
And those plans vary based on the community, because you know, you see one rural community, you've seen one rural community. And so they have developed plans that could, if funded, could help connect many, many parts of these very rural areas. And so that's been a success. The holdup we have right now for those kinds of community is funding. They're very poor communities, they're not well connected by roads. So it's the funding is a significant piece.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So in that funding are you looking at municipal-based projects or are you looking at ones that involve extending the reach of private companies that might have service in adjacent areas. Or cooperatives?
MS. SCHAFFER: Well so cooperatives are not in Maine's DNA. I wish they were but we're not, we don't really have a big cooperatives here, we're not like the Midwest, we just don't have them. Um and so we are very community, we have 474 towns in Maine, most of them have town meetings almost all of them have town meetings every year devoted on the budget.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Very New England.
MS. SCHAFFER: Very New England. Very New England. Very independent. And so some of these towns are having a municipal solution. Most of them, it's a big lift. You know most of these communities, uh, buying a firetruck at $300,000 is a significant investment. And so, investing a couple million dollars in a broadband network is a lot. And so umm they are trying to figure out how much if the community can be part of it, and if a private provider can be a part of it and maybe we can get some federal funds and some state funding. It's really a patchwork of funding that varies community to community about how its going to happen.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So do you have some success stories that you could share?
MS. SCHAFFER: We do. We have a actually, there is a couple different ones. One is an island off the coast of Maine called Islesboro, who you know, I always say, they have a different property tax base than many of the communities in Maine because they, it's rich people who summer there. And quite frankly Islesboro could have gone to some of these rich people and say, hey help us connect up. But they decided not to do that. Instead they spent about two years going to the sewing circle, going to the transfer station, going to PTA meetings, hanging out at the ferry station, you know talking to everyone in town about the importance of connectivity because Islesboro realized it wasn't just connecting people. People had to learn how to use it. And that was where the real benefit came in. And so that community voted to build their own network. They contracted out to a small provider to run it and to maintain it. And they also voted to um underwrite part of the cost of subscriber services. So, on Islesboro you can get a gig service for $380 dollars a year.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh my goodness.
MS. SCHAFFER: And that was intentional on their part.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Alright so that's going to mean that this island of the coast of Maine has better services available than in some of our much more urban locations across the country.
MS. SCHAFFER: Yes. Yes that is true. And same is true in two other towns in far down east Maine-- Calais in Baileyville, again two very rural towns on the Canadian border up, in Washington County. They actually had pretty good connectivity, but they realized it wasn't enough. And um so they first worked with the existing providers to see if they would expand. And these 16 providers really didn't express an interest in providing the same kind of service that the communities were looking for. So both communities put up about a million and a half a piece. They created a broadband utility district. They built out a fiber network for 87 miles of fiber to those two communities. They just lit it two weeks ago. They are hoping to get open access but right now they have one provider who's providing on it and they went actually to a bank and used the community reinvestment act to get a low interest loan to fund it with the community funding being sort of the loan guarantee, shall we say to the bank that if this doesn't meet projections then the towns will come in and help support the loan payback. So, there's two different very specific examples of communities that are pretty rural that have picked it up and done it on their own.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Did those communities have some sort of existing industry or hospital facility or something that they were, something that was front of mind and center in ensuring that they got the connectivity they need or was it just households coming together and saying for us to thrive in the future we're going to need this infrastructure.
MS. SCHAFFER: On Islesboro it was households, it was the community coming together, because really if you live on one of the 15 inhabited islands you know that your survival really I mean. If you lose population, if you lose schools, you've lost your island, you've lost your population. In Calais and Baileyville, Baileyville does have a big paper plant. Calais has a hospital but its in bankruptcy right now. So they were not the major forces I mean I think the paper plant was a bit of a force because they, you know, they employ engineers who need to have 24/7 access to the plant so if it goes down, they're able to fix whatever's gone wrong and that doesn't work if you live way outside of town and you have to drive in on the roads which are not great in the middle of winter to fix something that you could have fixed online. So they had a real interest in making sure some of their employees were connected, as well as the community. But really it was driven by the community, it wasn't really driven by the interest of the paper company or certainly the interest of the hospital.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: And so, does the Connect Maine Authority just focus on getting these plans for deployment or do you also think about the other side of the coin which is affordability.
MS. SCHAFFER: We have not, so our purpose is we try to expand broadband in areas that are unserved we define unserved as 25/3.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: that's 25 megabits down and 3 megabits up.
MS. SCHAFFER: Right and um I'd love to revise that so it would be higher.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So would I. I think we really need to start thinking about that not just in rural America, but in urban America because that asymmetry we see is about consumption. Like, so much more coming at us. It's not about what we can create. And I would like to change that because I think there's a lot of genius in this country that given faster speeds could um…create a lot more out there and put out a lot more data and be, you know, we could have communities that could thrive with more economic intelligence about the work that they do.
MS. SCHAFFER: So ConnectME has a build standard of X/10. You gotta have 10 up. And how I think of it is the down speed is how the world talks to Maine. The up speed is how Maine talks to the world.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh I like that!
MS. SCHAFFER: So for economic purposes, for community purposes, the up speed is what's really really important because if we spend a billion dollars in Maine and connect everybody and all we do is watch Netflix, we haven't accomplished what we really need to. We really…that up speed is what drives technology and it drives economic development. And you know, a lot of federal programs, the USDA Reconnect program, the FCC program, the definition of 10/1 and the definition that 10/1 is adequate for rural America, because rural America can be an economic driver but it has to have connectivity and it has to have fast up speeds. So, um we haven't looked much at cost as we should have, as we should. And part of the problem I think is there's no sort of definition about what is affordable in the state, anywhere in the country. I know BroadbandUSA just came out with some data that Maine of course is at the top of the heap again with two percent of our population having access to broadband that costs less than $60 a month. And that's bad, that's band, that we are a poor state and that we are, our connectivity is so expensive. You know, we tried, when, when ISPs and communities come in for infrastructure grants is, one of the things we do look at is the cost of service. You know, what are they charging for this service? And we like to make sure they are in some level of affordability, which usually is under $60 bucks for basic service, sometimes it's under $40 bucks for basic service. But that's one of the things we do look at when we judge an application, which is what are they actually going to charge for this service.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Do you see real gaps in what consumer fees are across the state?
MS. SCHAFFER: Yeah, it's sort of surprising. You know I think like many states across the country, we don't have a lot of competition, so you really have to take the person who is going by your house. So, we do see a variety of costs. There not inexpensive. You know, some of the grants we've provided, Sherman, Maine, which is you know, in the middle of nowhere, almost in a rustic county, we've provided a grant to a local ISP up there and you can get a gig service in Sherman for $49.99 a month. So that's when the state or federal help underwrite this, that's the kind of service you can get, we hope.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah, and then do you see big adoption rates in these little towns when they wind up getting service, does everyone jump on board?
MS. SCHAFFER: What we have found is yes. Islesboro, they have a 90 percent take rate.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Whoa! That might be higher than some of our urban centers.
MS. SCHAFFER: yes. And what we find is that when some of our small providers begin to bring connectivity to areas, real connectivity to areas that have not had it before, or have had really bad service before, people do jump on board and take it.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, across the board, what have you found as the Director of Connect Maine's Authority that other states could replicate? In other words, what are you doing well that we should be copying across the country?
MS. SCHAFFER: Well, I actually do a lot of what other states are doing too. And many states now have these planning grants in place where they help communities figure out why is they want broadband, what is the current connectivity now, could the provider that's there now be willing to upgrade the service and bring the service to more people? What they want for their community, you know, what are the goals for the community for the economic, community development. Those, I think, are really critical. Because what we have found is that they actually provide like sticky tape for a provider to actually come in and grab on to.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah.
MS. SCHAFFER: So you know if we have a provider who wants to come into a rural community. And they're kind of walking around the street and saying "Hey, anybody want broadband? Anybody want broadband?" It's so much easier and so much more efficient for a community to pull that stuff together on their own, because they know each other. And they can come to a provider and say "Hey can you come in and talk to us about what kind of service you can provide?" That, I think, is a critical element. It puts the power of deciding what you want and what you're gonna get into the hands of the community, which is really important.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I love that you call it sticky tape. That's such a visual. I get it, the idea that you've created this demand and you're going figure out how to meet it and match it. That makes so much sense.
MS. SCHAFFER: Yeah.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So…
MS. SCHAFFER: There's a bunch of communities and a bunch of states across the country that are now doing that. I think we all can learn from each other. I spend, you know, a lot of time looking at what other people are putting up for their communities and systems. And you know, trying to figure out how we can continually improve ours so it's a little easier for communities to undertake this process.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I like how you said though that you look around the country and you look at what other states are doing because there is so much opportunity to learn from each other and putting this premium on early planning that you describe makes so much sense.
MS. SCHAFFER: It's really helpful.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Now before I'm going to let you go, I have a few questions I want to ask all sorts of broadband authorities and people like you and I do them regularly at the end of our little chats. So it's a quick take on how you use the internet. So, sitting there in Maine, maybe this is when you were doing Girl Scout cookies or campaigns, maybe its been in another place or time, but what was the first thing you recall doing on the internet?
MS. SCHAFFER: It actually was when I was working for the Girl Scouts…
MS. ROSENWORCEL: I thought so! I had a feeling it was going to come back to cookies.
MS. SCHAFFER: It was in the early, mid-90s', I worked from home because you office, I live in Kennebunk County and our office is in South Portland so I used to connect via modem. And do database entry, some database entry, to the Council. And I used to, I mean I used to call at four o'clock in the afternoon and say "Is anybody on the computer? Is anybody on the phone?" and they'd, you know, put the phone on the modem and hook up the one computer and then I'd call in and enter data. So that was sort of my first use of the internet.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh my gosh, I can hear the noise, that was definitely a moment in time.
MS. SCHAFFER: [laughter]
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Ok now let's get super mundane. What was the last thing you did online or on the internet?
MS. SCHAFFER: You know, I actually, I have this thing I do when I'm on calls. I watch live animal cams. So right now I'm watching a live cam from Africa. I'm looking for, there are hippos in the pond.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh my gosh, I have this vision of you, in snowy Maine watching animals like cross grassland in Africa right now.
MS. SCHAFFER: Yeah. And you know one of my favorite sites which is now not, its not up this time of day anyways, it's actually bears in southeast, southwestern Alaska fishing for salmon. It's perfect conference call…
MS. ROSENWORCEL: It's calming just watching animals out in the wild while you're doing digital activity. You know that makes a certain amount of sense to me.
MS. SCHAFFER: [laughter] Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Alright, so big picture. What do you think the future of the internet and digital life should look like?
MS. SCHAFFER: I think everybody needs to be connected at least a gig. I don't know how to get there but I think that's what it needs to be. I actually think that who owns the internet is really really important. A lot of times I compare this to highways to railroads. And in Maine at least railroads are owned by private people. You have to pay a tariff to get on it. You often have to pay a tariff to cross it. They are not well maintained. They are a little bit like old copper networks. Where as the highway, everybody can get on at essentially the same rate. If you use it more you pay more. But everybody as the access, the same access to the same infrastructure. And I really think we need to think about the internet in that way. It is such a critical piece of how people are gonna interact with each other that its really important that no matter where you are or who you are, you have the same access to that infrastructure. And I think, I don't know, if we know, what digital life is gonna do, but I think its going to improve health care. its certainly going to improve education. Its going to improve entrepreneurial activity, especially in rural parts of the country. Its gonna have a significant impact on climate change. So I think there's huge opportunity for us. I think it's a really exciting time to be trying to figure out how to connect rural communities. And I'm really excited to a part of that process here in Maine.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, hear hear. I like the sound of that. Now, where can folks follow you to keep up with the good work you're doing with the Connect Maine Authority.
MS. SCHAFFER: So I'm on Twitter and I think, they can just search Connect Maine on Twitter., I don't actually know my Twitter handle.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh I love that. You're the first person who's ever said that to me. But that's terrific. That's terrific.
MS. SCHAFFER: [laughter] And I'm personally I'm @PeggySchaffer on Twitter. ConnectMe is also on Facebook. We don't do that much on Facebook. And we have a website Maine.gov/connectme/home. That's our homepage.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Sounds good. Well, I want to thank you Peggy for the work you're doing in Maine, on the ground. You know we talk a lot about these issues in Washington but there is so much good work being done at the state level. And I'm so pleased you would chat with us about it today, so thank you so much.
MS. SCHAFFER: And I want to thank you for your continued advocacy. It's real important to have a voice like yours at the federal level because there's not enough of them, especially in positions like yours. And I think it's really really important, the work that you're doing.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Ah thank you. I really appreciate it. And thanks for listening. Have a good day.