Maine’s new broadband agency is readying its plan to expand high-speed internet

Later this month, Maine’s new broadband agency will submit its plan to the federal government to use $128 million to expand and improve high-speed internet access across the state.

The Maine Connectivity Authority is just six months old, but the quasi-governmental agency is already sitting on $21 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan that Democrats in Congress passed earlier this year, and it will soon submit its proposal to the U.S. Treasury Dept. to spend $128 million more.

Board chairman Tim Schneider told lawmakers on the Legislature’s Energy and Utility Committee Wednesday that the agency is in the process of merging with the old ConnectMaine Authority, a small department that’s spearheaded broadband expansion with a fraction of the cash that’s available now.

“We were doing a lot with a little bit of money, and our goal here now is to do a real lot with a lot of money,” he said.

But there are rules for how Maine can spend it.

Schneider says the treasury department released guidelines in October for the $128 million, which focuses on areas where residents are either unserved by broadband, or underserved, a designation currently defined as internet speeds falling below 100 megabits for download and 25 megabits for upload.

The broadband agency has mapped areas of the state that fall below those standards and they’re extensive.

Some are concentrated in rural towns and others are in what’s known as “last mile” locations where internet providers have deemed it unprofitable to extend service because there are too few customers.

Some towns have sought to remedy this problem by creating their own networks, a move Schneider says is encouraged by the federal government’s guidelines in applying for the newly available funds.

“They explicitly call out public-private partnerships. And one of the great things about Maine is we have a lot of examples of these kind of public-partnerships that sort of take the best capabilities from local governments and private providers and put them together to provide service,” Schneider says.

The public-private partnerships, also known as municipal broadband, are not always viewed favorably by existing providers.

In November the town of Hampden defeated a municipal broadband initiative after lobbying by Spectrum, a provider owned by the multibillion dollar telecommunications giant Charter Communications. A campaign by a conservative advocacy group bolstered Spectrum’s lobbying efforts, but the two entities failed to scuttle a municipal broadband initiative in Leeds last month.

Such fights could proliferate in the coming months as the broadband agency distributes millions in federal dollars.

And more is on the way.

The infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law two weeks ago will bring another $100 million to the state.

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