A bipartisan proposal before the Maine House would create a new state agency to guide and help fund a rollout of universal broadband internet service in Maine.

The bill would establish the Maine Connectivity Authority with up to $129 million provided to the state through the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act and authorize it to build physical infrastructure, provide grants and loans for broadband projects, and partner with communities and the private sector to organize the expansion of affordable high-speed internet service across Maine.

High-speed internet is no longer a luxury – it is a necessity for students, businesses and families, Gov. Janet Mills said at a news conference Monday announcing the proposal.

“We need affordable, high-speed internet throughout the state, and with willpower, we will get there,” Mills said.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, would establish the independent authority with a board of directors appointed by the governor and both chambers of the State House. It would have independent borrowing power and would be paid for with state and federal funds.

The proposal is included in an amendment to L.D. 1484, a bill Bennett presented recently to expand the role of the ConnectMaine Authority, or ConnectME, created 15 years ago to help build out the state’s high-speed internet infrastructure. Until recently, ConnectME operated with an annual budget of just $1 million.

The existing ConnectME has assisted communities with broadband expansion, but its role has been reactive, Bennett said. The Maine Connectivity Authority, on the other hand, would be given the power and discretion to coordinate a statewide buildout of high speed internet, instead of a patchwork of local and private-sector initiatives.

“This organization is going to be strategic, muscular and get the job done all across Maine,” Bennett said.

A separate proposal also includes $100 million in state funding for the new authority. Along with American Rescue Plan funds, Maine is likely in line for more federal financing for broadband expansion in an upcoming infrastructure bill from the Biden administration, Bennett said. The state’s unmet need is estimated at $600 million, he said.

“This is an unprecedented amount of money the state has been allocated,” he said.

Especially as remote work and distance learning become more commonplace, the state has to move ahead aggressively to close the gaps and help those without high-speed connections, Bennett said. It is also necessary if Maine wants to fully capitalize on the apparent influx of out-of-state professionals purchasing property and working remotely, sometimes in far-flung parts of the state.

“The reality is that nobody will consider moving to a community without high-speed, reliable internet,” Bennett said. “The very survival of many towns across our state is at stake with the decisions we make.”

He said his fellow Republican caucus members support the proposal and “want to see these vast but vital funds spent smartly, swiftly and wholly in the public interest.”

Last year, Maine voters approved $15 million in bonding to expand high-speed internet in Maine, and the Mills administration allocated another $5.6 million in federal CARES Act funds last year to build internet infrastructure for 730 students in rural Maine.

Underserved rural communities have worked to expand internet service for years. Getting more people connected was a top recommendation of the Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee in a final report released last year.

The sudden reliance on internet for commerce, employment, education, medical services and communication via video streaming platforms highlights the disparities between communities with broadband and those without, Mills said.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, co-sponsored the bill. He likened the proposed Maine Connectivity Authority to a Great Depression-era federal agency, the Rural Electrification Administration, which advanced electrification across rural America.

“Fully funded and ably led, the Maine Connectivity Authority may one day be seen as a giant leap for Maine-kind, connecting us to jobs, to learning, to health care and to one another,” Berry said.

The new agency would be charged specifically with making sure effective internet connectivity is available universally in Maine; to build secure, reliable and affordable infrastructure to meet present and future needs; and to avail all residents, businesses and institutions of the opportunities presented by high-speed internet service.

How the authority would expand internet service would vary by community and project, Berry said. What different communities need varies widely across Maine, and that means there is no single approach that will work everywhere, Berry said.

“We are responding to a very complex spectrum of need in the state,” he said.

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