A coalition of Maine businesses, towns and nonprofit groups on Tuesday threw its support behind a bill to overhaul the state’s broadband policy for the first time in nearly a decade, a component of which suggests financing the expansion of high-speed Internet service through a new tax on cellphones.

The proposal, introduced by state Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, would require an updated strategic plan to expand broadband access in Maine and stronger efforts to support community broadband planning efforts.

Members of the Maine Broadband Coalition – a collection of more than three dozen towns and cities, businesses and nonprofit organizations – said expanding access to high-speed Internet service is expensive, but necessary for economic development.

“This is not a million-dollar problem. It is far larger,” said Fletcher Kittredge, chief executive officer of Great Works Internet and a member of the coalition.

“Most of Maine’s islands have incredibly slow broadband connections,” said Briana Warner, economic development director of the Island Institute, which is also a member of the coalition. “This is a huge disadvantage in today’s economy, and it prohibits island businesses from reaching customer bases, inhibits residents from taking telework opportunities, and makes it harder both for new young families to move to the islands and for young islanders to remain in their communities.”

The bill is currently before the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.

Maine has relatively wide access to broadband Internet services – 75 percent of homes have some sort of service – but is lacking in speed. Surveys done last year showed that average download speeds in the state were 8.7 megabits per second, which left Maine tied with Arizona on Internet speeds.

ConnectME said most of the homes in the state have service that meets the technical definition of broadband, but said the speeds don’t meet modern demands for businesses, tele-health services and education.

Most of Gideon’s bill is focused on strengthening the hand of ConnectME, which was established in 2006 to implement state broadband policy and expand broadband access to unserved areas.

Gideon’s bill would require ConnectME to develop a strategic plan to provide more broadband service in the state, with a goal of providing universal access to broadband and a set of benchmarks as it works toward that goal.

The authority would also provide matching funds to help communities evaluate their broadband service and needs and to make sure that state policies encourage the spread of high-speed Internet access.

In return, ConnectME would get more money.

A tax on landline telephone and cable bills of 0.25 percent currently goes to the authority. Gideon’s bill would expand that tax to cellphones.

Phil Lindley, the executive director ConnectME, said the authority takes in about $1.2 to $1.4 million annually and that would grow by about $600,000 if the tax is expanded to cellphones.

During the authority’s last round of grants, he said, ConnectME reviewed 35 applications, but could only fund nine projects because that’s all the money it had.

Lindley also said giving the authority the money to help towns study their broadband needs will be a welcome addition and he agreed with the need to update the state’s policy on expanding high-speed internet service.

“I think anybody would say that technology in the last 10 years has changed a lot and the solutions are different than they were 10 years ago,” he said.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

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