Advocates for broadband internet expansion in Maine say they are cautiously optimistic that a longstanding effort to dramatically increase state-level grant funding for rural broadband projects will finally bear fruit.

Several broadband-related bills have been introduced, including two proposed bond issues totaling $120 million for rural broadband expansion that are scheduled for legislative hearings Tuesday.

Industry leaders said their reasons for being optimistic include a notable increase in political will to bridge the digital divide in rural areas, and recent signaling from major cable and telephone companies, perennial opponents of municipal broadband, that they will no longer actively lobby against such projects in areas where their services aren’t economically viable.

Maine consistently ranks among the worst states for access to high-speed internet service, a situation several candidates for governor vowed to address during their campaigns.

Still, some advocates noted that previous efforts to boost state funding for rural broadband have broken down at the appropriations stage, which they said could happen again.

“For the past few legislative sessions, there has been an abundant amount of broadband-centric bills put forth. This session is no different with a variety of bills in all shapes and sizes,” said Colin Haley, marketing and external relations manager at Biddeford-based internet service provider GWI. “The good news is the continued interest and attention in the topic from all over the state and also at the federal level. The need is there. Communities, particularly the most rural areas, have very few options and little capital to throw at solutions.”

DESCRIBED AS A $1 BILLION PROBLEM

Dozens of rural Maine communities are exploring their options for building their own networks, and a handful already have moved forward. But advocates said there is a severe shortage of available grant money – an essential component of rural broadband expansion.

In Maine, the state-sponsored ConnectME Authority is responsible for administering state grants for rural broadband projects. It is funded by a 0.25 percent surcharge on Mainers’ telecommunications bills, which adds up to about $1 million a year, said Peggy Schaffer of the Maine Broadband Coalition public policy group. It would take at least 1,000 times that much money to bring rural areas up to modern broadband standards, Schaffer said.

“Nobody knows the exact size of the problem, but we’re pretty sure it’s over $1 billion,” she said.

Maine consistently places at or near the bottom of national rankings for internet connectivity, and the primary reason is the state’s poorly connected rural areas. Proponents of broadband expansion in Maine say rural areas have been left behind because the large internet service providers don’t see a financial benefit to upgrading their rural networks for broadband.

An estimated 200,000 Mainers still do not have access to broadband internet service as defined by the federal standard of at least 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload.

At 25 Mbps, a single user can engage in moderate internet usage such as streaming high-definition video, or multiple users can engage in light usage such as streaming music or browsing the internet.

A MATTER OF MONEY

This year, there are two bills before the Legislature that would dramatically increase funding for issuing grants to rural communities and internet service providers to build their own broadband networks. L.D. 295, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, would authorize a $100 million bond for ConnectME, and L.D. 354, sponsored by Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, would authorize a $20 million bond.

Both bonds would require approval by two-thirds of the Legislature and would then have to be approved by Maine voters at the ballot.

Sean Myers, co-founder and chief operating officer of Portland-based Vetro FiberMap, formerly known as NBT Solutions, said that while grant-funded networks are not the only solution for rural areas, the proposed bonds would serve a vital purpose.

“Maine needs better broadband infrastructure for many reasons – telehealth and remote employment are two of them, education, public safety, entertainment and commerce are a few more,” Myers said. “With our rural development and small town geography, it’s a relatively expensive proposition to replace old cable and telephone lines with fiber optics and wireless, but that’s what we need.”

Schaffer said the concept of facilitating rural broadband expansion generally has received bipartisan support in Maine. However, some of that support tends to wither when it comes to allocating actual money.

‘SORT OF A SHIFT’ IN OPPOSITION

But in the current legislative session there is a greater sense of hope, in part because of increased support from industry groups, Schaffer said.

The Telecommunications Association of Maine is advocating for the bond money, she said, and it appears that the major cable companies are not opposing it, “as long as it’s going to truly underserved areas.”

“That is sort of a shift,” Schaffer said.

The issue of broadband expansion has been gaining some political traction at the statewide level recently. All four of Maine’s 2018 gubernatorial candidates said expanding rural broadband service was a high priority, and Gov. Janet Mills made it a key component of her platform.

Carla Dickstein, senior vice president of research and policy development at Brunswick-based community development group Coastal Enterprises Inc., said she believes some – but not all – of the bond money being requested for rural broadband expansion will make it onto the ballot.

“I am optimistic that a broadband bond will pass and will get a two-thirds majority to go to referendum,” Dickstein said. “The governor, the Democrats and many Republicans see broadband as a priority investment in Maine’s economy.

“I am less optimistic that we will see $120 million in bonding given the competition for funds after years of underinvestment in Maine. I heard that there are over $2 billion in bond bills submitted – I haven’t counted them.”

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jcraiganderson

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