Democrats renewed their push for rural broadband expansion Tuesday by unveiling a bill to allocate $15 million in state funds to help expand broadband access across the state.

But the money could represent just one-tenth of what’s really needed to ensure broadband for all of Maine, members of the Legislature’s Energy Utilities and Technology Committee were told at a hearing on the measure.

Sen. Erin Herbig of Belfast, sponsor of the measure, said large parts of her town, including her home along Route 1, don’t have access to high-speed internet. She’s one of 10 Senate and House Democrats who have signed onto the bill.

L.D. 2021 comes on the heels of a new broadband plan developed this month by the ConnectME Authority, a six-member panel of state government agencies that’s tasked with facilitating universal access to broadband across Maine. Its plan concludes that Maine needs more than $600 million in combined state, local government and private funding to provide universal access.

The money in Herbig’s bill would be used to leverage private and public investments to improve high-speed infrastructure, but it would be a one-time investment. One other bill would allocate $8 million annually.

Jim Buckle, Owner of Buckle Farm in Unity and president of the Maine Farm Bureau, said modern day agriculture depends on a good high-speed connection to the internet for research, billing, inventory, crop management and remote monitoring of storage.

“There are many things we depend on internet use for, it is not an option. Every single day of our life the internet is tied to our farm,” Buckle said.

Funding broadband expansion has been a recurring issue for the Legislature, which failed to advance a $15 million borrowing package for broadband infrastructure expansion to voters in 2019. Herbig said 2020 was the year to move forward.

“Reliable high-speed internet should not be a luxury in today’s economy,” she said at a news conference Tuesday. Expanding broadband in Maine could be costly, Herbig said, but the state’s rural economies are already paying.

“We pay when businesses in rural Maine close, because they cannot compete and reach customers online,”Herbig said. “We lose when our farmers have to come in from the fields and wait several hours to submit an invoice to their customers because that is how they compete in today’s economy.”

She said the lack of access to broadband connection also can dissuade people or businesses from moving to Maine.

“The longer we wait to make this investment the further we fall behind in rural communities like mine in Waldo County,” Herbig said.

Herbig said roadblocks in the Legislature come largely from lawmakers from communities with good access to the internet, but Herbig and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said that was the story for much of Maine.

“We have a problem in Maine with not having quality internet for far too many people, it’s not just little pockets, it’s great big places all across the state and we waited for way to long to actually make a significant investment in this,” Jackson said.

Peggy Schaffer, the director of ConnectME Authority, said as many as 85,000 homes were without access to high-speed internet. She said some lower estimates are based on incorrect interpretations of data, such as by assuming that if one house in a census tract has a broadband connection, then every home in the tract does. “But we know that is not accurate,” she said.

Some Republicans in the Legislature are pushing back on the proposal because it doesn’t prioritize connections or include a strategy to truly improve the economy. Republicans also say funding for expansion would only go to towns that have the staff to make the applications for the grants, while smaller towns without large staffs would still go without.

“The Department of Transportation has a three-year work plan. It explains which roads will get work done, where, why, what kind of work, and how much it will cost. All of it based on identified needs and priorities. This is the kind of plan we need for our broadband efforts,” says a policy position on broadband expansion posted on the Maine Senate Republicans’ website.

The bill will next be the subject of a work session before the committee in the weeks ahead.

In other action Tuesday, the committee took testimony on a bill by state Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, that would require cable providers to pro-rate customer bills when they cancel their services. A new practice by Spectrum Communications to charge customers for the entire billing period when they cancel part way into the billing period prompted numerous complaints to state officials and lawmakers.

Berry said the state shouldn’t have to regulate fair business practices but that it was increasingly necessary. In written testimony, Charter Communications, Spectrum’s parent, said requiring the pro-rating of canceled bills was unfair as other companies that provide online content and on-demand offerings were not required to pro-rate bills when a customer cancels.

Charter also said Berry’s proposal would be preempted by federal law.

 

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