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March 14, 2019

Chamber CEO: Better broadband could have 'enormous' effect on economy

Courtesy / Dana Connors
Courtesy / Dana Connors
Maine State Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Dana Connors told a U.S. Congressional committee that improved broadband could grow rural small business sales by more than $550 million and add more than 3,000 jobs over the next three years.

Maine State Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Dana Connors told a U.S. Congressional committee Wednesday that increasing access to broadband technology for the state's rural small businesses could add $315 million to the state's annual GDP grow rural small business sales by more than $550 million and add more than 3,000 jobs over the next three years.

Connors, speaking before the U.S. House Committee on Small Business, endorsed key recommendations of a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report that include increasing internet and mobile phone connectivity in rural areas, increasing the talent pipeline of candidates trained in digital skills and increasing adoption of digital training and tools for rural small business so they can scale their operations.

The purpose of Wednesday's hearing was to review the opportunities online technology holds and examine the barriers rural small businesses face in fully embracing it, according to the committee's web page.

Only 17% of businesses are located in rural areas despite 97% of the nation being classified as rural, according to U.S. Census data.

"Digital tools have changed the way many rural entrepreneurs are starting and growing their business," the web page says. "By embracing digital engagement, Main Street firms are experiencing greater sales both locally and globally. Yet, rural entrepreneurs still face challenges in fully utilizing digital technologies."

In Maine, more than 60% of the adult population lives in a rural area — the highest in the country, according to the state Chamber. Most Maine businesses are small, with 75% employing fewer than 10 people. According to the U.S. Chamber report, Unlocking the Digital Potential of Rural America, rural small businesses are slowly adopting digital tools and technology, helping them boost revenues, reduce purchasing costs and create jobs.

"Digital tools and technology already are having a beneficial impact on Maine's rural businesses and our state's economy," Connors told the committee. "The potential that exists is extraordinary if we prioritize further investments to bridge the digital divide in rural Maine. The impact would be far-reaching and have an enormous and lasting impact on our people and our economy.

In his testimony, Connors highlighted Machias-based Axiom Technologies, whose former CEO, Susan Corbett, discovered more than a decade ago when she moved to Maine that access to high-speed broadband and the digital economy had not yet arrived in Washington County. Axiom now delivers high-speed internet access to one of the most rural counties in America, leading to economic investment in an area of Maine that for years saw the opposite, Connors said.

According to Broadband Now, there are 128,000 people in Maine that have access to only one wired provider, leaving them no options to switch and another 9,000 people in Maine don't have any wired internet providers available where they live.

The committee, chaired by U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, D-N.Y., also includes U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine 2nd District.

Also speaking before the committee were Bill Ingersoll, owner of Bikes, Trikes, and Quads, of Sloansville, N.Y.; Afton Strout, owner of My Dinosaur Dreams, State Center, Iowa; and Jake Ward, president, of Connected Commerce Council, Washington, D.C.

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