Maine’s new broadband agency gears up to handle a flood of federal cash

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A new state agency created to expand broadband internet service in Maine is taking shape as a flood of federal money for broadband expansion is about to hit the state.

Gov. Janet Mills was sworn in to the Maine Connectivity Authority’s board of directors last month after its seven members had drawn from private industry, education, health and municipal circles. The authority is recruiting a director general and will hold its first meeting next week.

The quasi-government authority was created with overwhelming support from the legislature this year and tasked with overseeing the investment of at least $ 250 million to ensure affordable high-speed internet service extends to all corners of the world. Maine. According to state estimates, up to 83,000 households, or nearly 15% of the state, do not have high-speed internet service.

“I’ve been working on broadband policy in Maine since 2013 (and) this is the first time Maine has had the funds and tools to truly credibly solve its broadband deficit,” said Tim Schneider, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Connectivity Authority. Public service taxpayer advocate and general counsel for Tilson Technology Management in Portland.

“There’s a lot that needs to happen from here to there, but that’s the kind of money you would need to be able to say that we want to have universal broadband availability in the state of. Maine, ”Schneider said.

The agency can negotiate contracts, borrow money, build and own infrastructure, and collect data on Internet services, among other rights and responsibilities. The eventual structure, staffing levels and approach of the authority will be established over the next few months as it develops.

Schneider expects the agency to update and start working on projects quickly. Most funds won’t be available until October at the earliest.

A LONG-TERM POLITICAL OBJECTIVE

Expanding broadband internet has been a political goal for years, but the ConnectMaine Authority, a small agency established in 2006, has never had enough money to make the massive investments needed to fully connect poor communities. and rural.

Private internet companies are building and maintaining networks in many parts of Maine, but have no incentive to connect remote areas because they would not reach enough paying customers to make the investment worth it.

ConnectMaine has been able to provide approximately $ 750,000 to $ 1 million per year in grants to build local Internet infrastructure, funding approximately 27 projects in total.

The amounts managed by the new Connectivity Authority will be enormous in comparison. Mills earmarked $ 150 million for broadband expansion under the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Democrats and President Biden this spring.

A nearly $ 1,000 billion infrastructure package passed by the US Senate on Tuesday includes at least an additional $ 100 million in direct broadband investment for Maine. But the actual amount for the state could be much higher, as Maine is well positioned to receive development funding through a grant formula that targets underserved and high-cost areas, Senator Susan Collins said. , R-Maine, in a press release. Tuesday.

Collins was among the senators who negotiated the bipartisan compromise infrastructure package and pushed to include $ 65 billion for broadband.

“It has become increasingly clear in recent years – and especially in light of the pandemic – that broadband is no longer a luxury, but a necessity,” Collins said in a statement.

The inequalities of the Internet divide in Maine were exposed in the early days of the pandemic, as reliable and affordable broadband service became crucial for education, employment, socialization, shopping and other daily needs.

“Much like rural electrification did in the 1930s, these broadband investments will help connect every American to the infrastructure that powers 21st century life and empower communities across the country to engage. fully into the 21st century economy, ”said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said in a Portland Press Herald editorial. Reliable internet connections could also attract remote workers in search of a better quality of life to the state, he added.

AFFORDABILITY ALSO A PROBLEM

The discussion of broadband development often evokes rural and remote parts of the state, but the accessibility gaps also put broadband internet service out of reach for some people in urban areas. Schneider expects affordability to be part of the conversation in any work done by authority.

“When I think of the concept of universal service, it’s not just about the fiber going through your home, it’s about being able to take advantage of that service,” said Schneider. “It must be reliable, available and affordable. If you can check only two of these boxes, you do not have universal broadband internet.

Other members of the authority include Carlos Javier Barrionuevo, who works for Georgetown Broadband in Georgetown; John Chandler, former CEO of BerryDunn, a Portland-based management and accounting firm; Daniel P. Belyea, Workforce Development Manager at Maine Community College System; Danielle Louder, Co-Director of Healthcare Development and Director of the Northeast Telehealth Resource Center; Michael Reed, who has worked on municipal broadband projects in Maine; and Robert Souza, a senior telecommunications executive and former CEO of Otelco, a New England Internet service provider.

The first meeting of the authority is scheduled for August 17.


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