A new state agency created to expand high-speed internet service in Maine is taking shape as a flood of federal money for broadband expansion is about to hit the state.

Gov. Janet Mills swore in the board of the Maine Connectivity Authority last month after its seven members were drawn from private industry, education, health and municipal backgrounds. The authority is hiring a chief executive and will hold its first meeting next week.

The quasi-governmental authority was established with overwhelming support in the Legislature this year and tasked with overseeing the investment of at least $250 million to ensure affordable, high-speed internet service extends to every corner of Maine. Up to 83,000 households, almost 15 percent of the state, lack high-speed internet service, according to state estimates.

“I’ve been working on broadband policy in Maine since 2013, (and) this is the first time Maine has had the funds and the tools to really credibly solve its broadband gap,” said Connectivity Authority Board Chair Tim Schneider, Maine’s former Public Advocate for utility ratepayers and general counsel at Tilson Technology Management in Portland.

“There are a lot of things that need to happen from here to there, but this is the kind of money you would need to be able to say we want to have universal broadband availability in the state of Maine,” Schneider said.

The agency can negotiate contracts, borrow money, construct and own infrastructure, and collect internet service data, among other rights and responsibilities. The eventual structure, staffing levels and approach of the authority will be established in the coming months as it develops.

Schneider expects the agency to get up to speed and start working on projects rapidly. Most funding will not be available until October at the earliest.

A LONGTIME POLICY GOAL

Broadband internet expansion has been a policy goal for years, but the ConnectMaine Authority, a small agency established in 2006, never had enough money to make the sweeping investments needed to fully connect poor and rural communities.

Private internet companies build and maintain networks in many areas of Maine, but are not motivated to connect far-flung regions because they would not reach enough paying customers to make the investment worthwhile.

ConnectMaine has been able to offer about $750,000 to $1 million a year in grants for construction of local internet infrastructure, funding about 27 projects in total.

The amounts handled by the new Connectivity Authority will be enormous in comparison. Mills earmarked $150 million for broadband expansion from the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Democrats and President Biden this spring.

A nearly $1 trillion infrastructure package passed by the U.S. Senate Tuesday includes at least $100 million more in direct broadband investment for Maine. But the actual amount for the state could be much more, because Maine is in a good position to receive buildout funding through a grant formula that targets underserved and high-cost areas, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a news release Tuesday.

Collins was among the senators who negotiated the bipartisan compromise infrastructure package and pushed to include $65 billion for broadband.

“It has become increasingly clear in recent years – and especially in light of the pandemic – that broadband is no longer a luxury, but a necessity,” Collins said in a statement.

The inequities of Maine’s internet divide were laid bare during the early days of the pandemic, as reliable, affordable broadband service became crucial for education, employment, socializing, shopping and other day-to-day needs.

“Just as rural electrification did in the 1930s, these broadband investments will help connect every American to the infrastructure that powers 21st-century life, and enable communities across the nation to fully engage in the 21st-century economy,” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said in a Portland Press Herald editorial. Reliable internet connections could also draw remote workers looking for a better quality of life to the state, he added.

AFFORDABILITY ALSO AN ISSUE

The discussion of broadband development often evokes remote, rural parts of the state, but affordability gaps put high-speed internet service out of reach for some people in urban areas, too. Schneider expects affordability will be part of the conversation in any work the authority does.

“When I think of the concept of universal service, it is not just fiber running by your house, it is being able to take advantage of that service,” Schneider said. “It needs to be reliable, available and affordable. If you are only able to check two of those boxes, you don’t have universal high-speed internet.”

Other members of the authority include Carlos Javier Barrionuevo, who works for Georgetown Broadband in Georgetown; John Chandler, former CEO of BerryDunn, a Portland management and accounting firm; Daniel P. Belyea, chief workforce development officer at the Maine Community College System; Danielle Louder, co-director of Medical Care Development and director of the Northeast Telehealth Resource Center; Michael Reed, who has worked on municipal broadband projects in Maine; and Robert Souza, a veteran telecommunications executive and former CEO of Otelco, a New England internet service provider.

The authority’s first meeting is scheduled for Aug. 17.


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