Yesterday I had the chance to drive to Augusta and testify to the state legislature (specifically the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology). There’s a bill that’s working its way through the system: LD 256. In a nutshell, it tweaks the way the Maine School Library Network (MSLN) is funded in order to ensure the network continues to operate in the years to come. Now having sat through a couple hours’ discussion on the bill, I thought it might be useful for me to give you, the people who weren’t there, a quick overview of what the MSLN does and why funding it is important.
Back in ye days of olde, some people in the state thought it would be a good idea if blazingly fast internet (56kbps) were available at schools and libraries in Maine. Internet can be expensive, after all. Especially the fast stuff. Also, Maine is kind of a remote place, and there are areas that aren’t just “kind of”. Getting fast internet to those places would be tricky. There aren’t a whole ton of potential customers out there, so internet providers aren’t highly motivated to invest a lot of money in getting the infrastructure to those places.
But what if all the libraries and schools banded together and negotiated a contract for the whole state? Then providers would have the incentive to do just that: bring internet to the farthest reaches of Maine, because if they did, they’d get the juicy state contract. And so it was decided. A law was passed, and there was much rejoicing.
To fund said law, they devised a simple plan: add a fee to each “two way voice communication” in the state. In other words, if you’re talking on the phone to another person, then you’d contribute a bit of money to the MSLN in your monthly bill. For almost 20 years, this worked like a charm. 950+ schools and libraries were able to take advantage of the program. Fast forward to today, and you’ve got a minimum speed of 100mbps, even in the far reaches of the state. Better yet, you’ve got fast internet infrastructure that keeps spreading further into the state. (“Fast” is relative, but this is Maine, folks. We’ll take what we can get.)
However, a problem. More and more people in the nation and the state aren’t using landlines anymore to talk on the phone. They’re using cell phones. No biggie, right? It still qualifies as a “two way voice communication.” Aha! But the trick is, more and more companies are shifting away from having people pay for minutes on their cell phone plan, instead throwing in the phone calls for free if the customers pay for data. Data is not a “two way voice communication,” so there’s no fee collected there.
What this means is that the funding for the MSLN has been declining. It’s about $1.5 million per year less than where it needs to be today. LD 256 aims to fix that. The same companies that collected the fee before will continue to do so (phone/cell/internet companies). But instead of charging a percentage of “two way voice communication” costs, they’ll pay a flat rate. It works out to about $1 per phone subscription per year. This is not an extravagant program. For 8 cents a month on your phone bill, all the schools and libraries in the state get to continue having solid internet speeds, regardless of how remote they are. And internet providers will still be incentivized to keep upping the speeds throughout the state.
The internet is becoming less and less of a luxury and more and more of a necessity. Slow speeds discourage businesses from moving to an area. They discourage residents from wanting to live there. They frustrate families who just want to stream movies and play games and have fun. They’re a real downer. (Just ask my son.) I can’t imagine what my son would do in school if they lost their internet connection. Sure, some of the classes would be fine. Math would still be math. But so much of his research and learning is enhanced through online research and the like. Students in our state deserve fast internet at school. And citizens who can’t have internet at home (because they live too far away from a provider or because they can’t afford it) need to have a way to access high speeds. Libraries provide that free of charge.
The MSLN is a great deal.
However, having testified and been grilled about the bill, I know there are a few questions some might have about it. Allow me to answer them.
First, why not just charge library patrons who use the internet? Why force all Mainers to fund the activity of people who need to come in and use the MSLN? After all, it wouldn’t be inordinately expensive, right? Maybe a few bucks a year or a month. Still a great deal. Perhaps, but there are two big problems with that idea:
- The MSLN is only partially funded by the state. 40% of it, to be precise. The other 60% comes from federal funds. Funds that specifically stipulate they’re only available if libraries don’t charge people to use the internet. As soon as you switch to a pay for use system, those monies go away. (Hint: that would be bad.)
- The MSLN is able to get as low of a rate as it does because it has such great buying power. It represents so many different libraries and schools that providers are highly motivated to work with them. As soon as some libraries or schools start to peel off and negotiate on their own (because they live in areas with plenty of internet options, for example), then that buying power gets hurt. So the rates for MSLN might go up, which in turn would motivate more organizations to look elsewhere. It turns into a slow death spiral, and nobody wants that. (Seriously.)
The second issue that kept coming up was why libraries and schools didn’t just fundraise the money to cover this on their own. After all, the difference between what the fee is currently bringing in and the money needed to fully fund the program isn’t huge. We’re talking anywhere from a few hundred per library to three thousand dollars for the bigger libraries. Surely they can find it in their budgets to cover that gap?
But once again there are two big problems with that approach:
- The gap of funding is increasing each year. It’s estimated it would double this year, so that turns the money libraries would need to cough up to something more like between a thousand dollars all the way up to six thousand dollars. It doesn’t take a financial whiz to see the trend there. It’s not sustainable. Sooner or later (likely sooner), the death spiral would begin.
- Most libraries in the state are locally funded, at least to an extent. And local governments are focused on local issues. What’s best for their citizens. They don’t worry about what’s happening in the County or Downeast or some other place in the state. They worry about what their tax payers are saying. The MSLN works because it operates at a state level. It takes into account the greater good. Left to local budgets, some libraries or schools would inevitably peel off . . . and we’re back to spirals of death.
The thing is, the MSLN is an awesome program. It works, and it works well. Other states look at it and are envious. It’s something Maine is doing very right, and all that needs to happen is for Maine to keep doing it. It literally helps everyone in the state, and it can keep doing that for pennies a month. Again, this isn’t proposing to increase the funding for the program. LD 256 just tries to have people continue to pay what they’ve been paying for the last 20 years. No one’s been complaining about it. The only reason it’s been changing is because pesky technology has changed the way people pay for phone calls.
So if you live in Maine and would like to see this wonderful program continue to thrive and avoid spirals of any sort, please speak up. The members of the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology are as follows:
- Senator David Woodsome (R-York), Chair
- Senator Andre E. Cushing III (R-Penobscot)
- Senator Mark N. Dion (D-Cumberland)
- Representative Seth A. Berry (D-Bowdoinham), Chair
- Representative Deane Rykerson (D-Kittery)
- Representative Jennifer L. DeChant (D-Bath)
- Representative Janice E. Cooper (D-Yarmouth)
- Representative Christina Riley (D-Jay)
- Representative Heather B. Sanborn (D-Portland)
- Representative Nathan J. Wadsworth (R-Hiram)*
- Representative Lance Evans Harvell (R-Farmington)
- Representative Beth A. O’Connor (R-Berwick)
- Representative Jeffery P. Hanley (R-Pittston)
Reach out to them and let them know you support LD 256!