AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills has proposed borrowing another $30 million to help expand broadband in rural parts of Maine, where COVID-19 restrictions have exposed how the limited internet connectivity has compounded the pandemic’s negative impacts on learning and the economy.

In her state of the budget address Tuesday, Mills called high-speed internet “as fundamental as electricity, heat, and water,” and said everybody in Maine has a story about slow or nonexistent internet access.

“It is the primary way of connecting with others in the 21st century,” Mills said. “It is the modern equivalent of rural electrification in the 1930s and the interstate highway system in the 1950s.”

The problem isn’t a new one for Maine, or most rural states, where limited connectivity is cleaving two societies – the connected and the disconnected. Maine consistently ranks among the worst states for access to broadband and the pandemic has only made things more acute.

But improving broadband also is a policy area that remains bipartisan at a time when Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on almost nothing.

In the Legislature, a bipartisan Broadband Caucus chaired by two Democrats and two Republicans – all from rural parts of Maine – already has been working to advocate for improved access to broadband. Members say the $30 million proposal is a good start but likely not enough.

“I do think the time is right for a big, bold, hairy, audacious, bipartisan approach,” Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, one of the four co-chairs of the caucus, said during a meeting of the group this month.

A map from the ConnectMaine Authority illustrating roughly what areas of the state have limited or no broadband access. Courtesy of ConnectMaine Authority

Members of that caucus have offered dozens of bills aimed at bringing reliable, efficient and affordable high-speed internet connections to their constituents. Among them is a bonding bill from Bennett that calls for $100 million and even that is only one-sixth the estimated $600 million needed to make broadband internet available to all Mainers.

Bennett said other states are taking a much more aggressive approach to building out their broadband infrastructure. In Iowa, for example, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she wants to invest $450 million on broadband expansion before 2025.

More than 85,000 Maine homes were without a high-speed internet connection in January 2020, according to information provided to the Legislature by the ConnectME Authority, a two-person state agency that works to expand access to broadband statewide.

Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, said half of the town of Westport Island in her district has no broadband connection at all.

“So, it’s been an incredible struggle for them during remote learning,” she said. “Some of the people were actually taking their children into the Shaw’s in Wiscasset to use the WiFi there last spring when schools were closed.”

Lawmakers were encouraged by Mills’ message Tuesday but also by growing support among their peers. Bennett said the COVID-19 pandemic has created, “a real sea change in attitudes.”

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, a founding member of the caucus, agreed. Last year, Berry saw his $100 million broadband bond proposal whittled to just $15 million following Republican resistance in the Legislature. Voters approved that bond last July and the money is expected to draw down an equal amount of matching funds, but it is still only an incremental step forward.

“I think for my colleagues on the other side of the aisle this is a great opportunity to serve their constituents and for all of us to join together and lift up the entire state,” he said. “We need to go big or go home.”

The funding from last year’s bond, which Department of Community and Economic Development Commissioner Heather Johnson said was approved in an “overwhelming popular vote,” soon will begin to flow as grants to communities seeking to expand.

Johnson said the new $30 million bond proposal by Mills is “really good next step,” but far from the last step. She said Mills is the first governor to make broadband a priority, noting that three years prior to 2020 the state had invested less than $1 million in broadband expansion each year.

“I think the governor is trying to balance a lot of things in that we want to invest in a way that we can grow the economy and attract new people to Maine but also not overburden the debt service that comes with that bond,” Johnson said. She said Mills’ two-year budget proposal accounts for that debt service associated with her bonding proposals, which total more than $100 million across an array of infrastructure investments.

Johnson also agrees the partisan divide over broadband investment has certainly narrowed because of the pandemic.

“One of the real shifts we’ve seen in broadband is we no longer have to say why, just how and when,” Johnson said. “Those become the questions and the discussions as opposed to the justification for the need, I think in a nonpartisan way we are past that discussion.”

The remaining questions are: “How do we fund it and what do we fund?” Johnson said.

“Bonding has never been less expensive to do. There’s real opportunity for leveraged funding right now,” she said, adding that expanding broadband also adds value to homes, adds access to digital learning and other types of interaction important for economic growth especially with interest rates so low.

Broadband expansion also is a top priority for Maine’s congressional delegation. On Wednesday, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, announced that she is co-sponsoring a federal bill that would pump some $15 billion in rural broadband expansion nationwide. The funding is targeted toward “unserved” areas of the country and would require both private and federal matching funds.

“From spurring job creation to supporting telemedicine, access to high-speed internet unlocks almost endless benefits and possibilities,” Collins said in announcing the bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nevada. “Our bipartisan bill can help bridge the digital divide between urban and rural America by bringing broadband directly to homes and businesses in areas that lack it.”

Christopher Knight, a spokesman for Collins in Washington, D.C., said the federal bill and Mills’ proposal were not coordinated but the money from the state bonding proposal could be used to meet the required share of state matching funds. Collins’ bill  also requires private internet service provider matching funds.

“These two efforts would complement each other,” Knight said. “The Maine bonds could be used to leverage this federal money and private investment, potentially more than doubling the state’s investment in broadband.”

Republicans and Democrats may still have points to wrangle over, including which technology may be the best. Bennett and Berry both seem to favor expanding fiber optic networks, while others are pinning hopes that new low-Earth orbit satellite technology may be the answer for an affordable expansion of broadband.

But both lawmakers believe Maine needs to be less reactive and more proactive and prepared to take advantage of every opportunity that becomes available, both from the federal government and the private sector.

Bennett said if Maine can expand broadband rapidly enough, the state would be in the best position to “leap frog” its economy forward given all of its other attributes.

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