Internet speed checks around the state could be just the ticket to upgrades in broadband access for Mainers, state and local officials say.
The Maine Broadband Coalition is launching the speed testing initiative Monday at its website, mainebroadbandcoalition.org. In addition to finding out their own upload and download speeds, users will help the coalition identify slow spots around the state where the speeds are not up to snuff. That will help the group determine where upgrades are needed or places where the internet is largely inaccessible.
Faster connection speeds are imperative for the economy and society in the 21st century, said Andrew Butcher, the director of the coalition and also director of innovation and resilience for the Greater Portland Council of Governments.
“This is an issue that’s really important to people,” Butcher said, pointing out that Mainers seem to recognize that and voted overwhelmingly in July to authorize a $15 million bond to help pay for high-speed internet service in parts of the state without service or with inadequate service.
“It’s the defining issue of our time,” Butcher said. “You wouldn’t think twice about a house being wired for electricity or plumbed for water. This is a service that’s imperative.”
That’s where the “Get Up to Speed” testing initiative comes in. Internet users can log onto the coalition’s site and determine within a minute or two their upload and download speeds. According to federal authorities, upload speeds of 3 megabits per second and download speeds of 25 megabits per second are considered the thresholds for acceptable broadband service.
In addition to neighborhood bragging – or bemoaning – rights, the speeds will be shared with the coalition, which will assemble the results on maps to show where Mainers are getting high-speed access and where their connections are falling short.
Butcher said the Federal Communications Commission currently assesses area internet speeds, but its judgment might be based on the results of one location in a census block, which can be as small as a city block in urban areas or cover several square miles in rural parts of states.
If the FCC checks speeds at one location, it will often use those results to determine if an entire census block is served at adequate speeds, Butcher said, but that may not be the reality for residents or businesses in those locations.
“It means that many people in many places appear to be served but may not be served, or adequately served, at all,” he said.
The Maine testing effort, if it’s used by a lot of people, will provide a more accurate picture, Butcher said.
That’s apparent from a pilot testing program in western Maine, he said. Results from that show wide variations in internet speeds within different towns. In Bridgton, for instance, one user’s test results showed very high upload and download speeds while another – apparently next door, based on the coalition’s map – fell far short of standards.
Butcher said sometimes results can vary based on the time of day, and he encourages interested users to test repeatedly, because it will yield richer results for state planners.
“More tests generate more data points,” he said. “We encourage people to test as often as possible.”
The results could help steer funding like the $5.6 million in CARES Act coronavirus relief money allocated Friday that will help pay for new internet infrastructure to provide high-speed broadband to students in rural Maine.
Gov. Janet Mills, who announced the program as part of a partnership with private internet providers, said it will pay for an expansion of internet access into rural locations that have been lacking the service.
“Internet access is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity,” Mills said. The need for expanded access is even greater during the pandemic, when many students are learning from home because of schools being closed to limit the spread of the virus, she said.
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