Supporters of high-speed internet in Maine hope the failure to secure a bond for service upgrades this year is a temporary setback that will be corrected when lawmakers reconvene next year.

This week Republican lawmakers blocked $58 million in bonds proposed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills from going to Maine voters, including $15 million to fund grants for broadband internet in undeserved communities. Mills made broadband expansion a cornerstone of her election campaign.

The vote against more public broadband funding was  a disappointment for groups that have urged policymakers to address spotty, and sometimes nonexistent, internet access endured by tens of thousands of Mainers. Maine consistently ranks among the worst states for high-speed internet access.

“I think unfortunately it got caught up in the politics of the bonds,” said Benjamin Sanborn, executive director of the Telecommunications Association of Maine, a trade group that represents independent telephone companies in the state.

He noted that there seems to be broad political support for public spending on broadband, and hopes that will help get a bond for broadband infrastructure in front of voters next year.

“Can we all agree this is something that is necessary to promote economic development and aging in place and all the benefits you can get from rural broadband?” Sanborn said.

“If nothing else, something that came out of these bond issues is how do we resolve rural broadband issues in Maine,” he said. “We are hopeful that taking it just on its merits, people will be supportive of it.”

SPOTTY SERVICE

Consistent high-speed internet, called broadband, is unavailable in large swaths of rural Maine. About 200,000 Mainers do not have broadband access, defined as 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps to upload, according to the Department of Economic and Community Development. Internet-speed testing company Ookla put Maine dead last in its 2018 national ranking of internet service speeds.

Poor internet service disadvantages people trying to improve their business, find employment and access education, health care and education. Increasing broadband access was highlighted as a top economic development priority in a 2018 joint report by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Educate Maine and the Maine Development Foundation.

Proponents of broadband upgrades say commercial internet companies won’t expand to rural areas because it is not profitable, while ConnectMe Authority, the state’s broadband agency, doesn’t have enough money to holistically address the issue.

Last year, the authority estimated it would cost the state $150 million to $450 million for total broadband access. Since 2017, it has funded about $12 million in grants.

Tired of waiting for private and public help, some local communities have started building their own broadband networks.

“We have a lot of private providers who want to help us solve this challenge, but they can’t do it alone, because of the financial constraints,” DECD Commissioner Heather Johnson said in an interview. Johnson is the former ConnectME director.

Mills’ bond would have provided millions of dollars to the ConnectME planning and construction grant program and attracted three times that much in matching funds, Johnson said. The organization has a 15-year history of distributing money, creating leverage and prioritizing projects, she said.

Losing the bond is disappointing, but ConnectMe will keep working with the funds it has, Johnson said.

“We will continue to do it, we just can’t get to as many people,” she said. “The gap between the people who have access and those who do not widens every day.”

MORE BONDS ON THE WAY

General obligation bonds, how state government borrows money, have to be passed by two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature and ratified by Maine voters.

On Monday, Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate approved sending a $105 million transportation bond to voters, but blocked Mills’ other bond proposals over opposition to more state spending after an increase to the budget this year.

House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, was unavailable for an interview Wednesday. But in a radio address last week, Dillingham said the broadband was an issue that “appeared worthy” of bonding, but “has yet to be presented with a clear direction as to what the department hopes to accomplish” with the borrowing.

Supporters hope the issue has enough traction to attract serious consideration when lawmakers reconvene in January.

Two broadband bond proposals, one for $100 million from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, and another for $20 million from Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, were held over from the session that ended in June.

“Fifteen million isn’t enough, it really needs to be a much bigger project. This needs to be compared to electrifying rural America,” said Glen Holmes, director of Western Maine Economic Development Council in South Paris.

The council recently completed a plan to bring broadband to 24 communities in Oxford County, with a price of about $75 million.

Holmes said broadband funding has reasonably broad support, and needs to be implemented the right way.

“I do have confidence the Legislature will do something in the January session, but it is still long way to go,” he said.

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