High-speed internet access is crucial for economic development in today’s world. Businesses rely on it, and opportunities to work from home are more prevalent than ever.

It’s safe to say that we’ve reached a point where high-speed internet access is no longer an option – it is a requirement for economic success and for the day-to-day needs of citizens. It is a necessary utility, not a luxury, for the 21st Century.

Fast and reliable internet is also becoming more and more important for aspects of everyday life, and it allows those living in rural locations the chance to age in place and access other opportunities they might not otherwise be able to.

Telemedicine, for example, is becoming more available and more popular. With reliable high-speed internet access, more people are able to take advantage of its benefits and avoid having to drive long distances to see a doctor for non-emergency reasons.

Seniors can especially benefit from access to telemedicine. Then there’s distance education which provides opportunities to people from all walks of life and all ages to further their education without having to drive to or live on a campus, providing flexibility to work or tend to family needs while earning a degree.

These are but two examples of ways that fiber internet access can have a large impact on a small community.

Despite the obvious benefits of access, many communities are still struggling to develop an infrastructure that will allow for consistent, comprehensive connectivity.

In those communities that do have newly expanded high-speed fiber internet, the benefits are immediately recognizable.

This year, voters in Alton, Maine, nearly unanimously approved the expansion of high-speed fiber internet to all locations in town, and also received a $260,000 grant to fully fund the project.

Alton, in taking control of its future by strongly supporting high-speed internet access for the community, should serve as a role model for other rural towns across the country.

Otelco’s foundation is built on just this type of innovative spirit and determination to move forward.

When farmers in the late 1800s didn’t have a way to stay connected, they developed the first local phone systems and privately held phone companies, many of which now fall under the Otelco name in the markets we serve.

Through this project, Alton is escaping the “doughnut hole” trap that all too often results in rural communities or parts of communities missing out on needed internet improvements.

Because funding for rural internet access projects often focuses on the unserved, the underserved – those with slower and outdated internet access that is nonetheless still considered serviceable – are unable to get necessary funding for projects because they are above the threshold for grants or other sources.

This often means that town centers, where economic activity is greatest, can start to fall behind as the outer parts of towns are focused on.

While we are glad to see any rural area gain high-speed internet access and all of the benefits that come with it, we believe that smart, collaborative funding approaches like that which we are undertaking in Alton can help avoid the connectivity “doughnut hole” and allow towns to improve their internet access in a way that benefits all citizens as their centers of economic activity are able to stay up-to-date with technological demands.

Alton represents so many rural towns across the country that are facing similar challenges, and whose residents may be able to advocate for moving their communities forward.

The enthusiasm of the town’s residents for the project demonstrates what might be possible for towns considering similar internet access improvement projects.

Even though national and state legislators are working to establish funding for broadband infrastructure, it’s wise for rural towns to take Alton’s lead and work proactively with providers to develop and realize the community broadband vision that best serves their needs.

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