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Broadband is having a moment, both here in Maine and at the federal level.
State and local officials have been talking about broadband expansion for a long time. The discussion and the demonstrated need surrounding high-speed internet access — a need that is particularly great in Maine’s more rural areas — have far outmatched the public investment.
It’s possible that the tide could now be turning.
The ConnectMaine Authority, the state entity tasked with supporting broadband development across Maine, has projected that it could cost $600 million to expand broadband to 95 percent of the state. That number has seemed daunting, almost to the point of being unreachable. For context, Mainers passed a first-of-its-kind bond question to invest in broadband last July — to the tune of $15 million. That certainly wasn’t the first or only state investment in broadband, but it speaks to the gulf Maine has seen between the existing internet connectivity needs and the available funding.
Last year’s bond was a meaningful incremental step, but still a drop in the bucket. Encouragingly though, that bucket is starting to fill up faster than expected with help from the federal government.
The American Rescue Plan Act passed in March included $10 billion for broadband, and Maine is expected to receive roughly $120 million of that funding. Democrats and Republicans in Congress still have some work to do in bridging the gap between their respective infrastructure proposals, but at least both sides can agree that broadband is infrastructure. There could be billions more in store nationally for broadband in a final infrastructure package.
At the state level, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills put forward a proposed bond package in February that included $30 million for broadband. That could be adjusted based on the recent federal investment. Republican Sen. Rick Bennett has an even more ambitious broadband bond bill, to the tune of $100 million, which would match the immediate level of borrowing called for by Maine’s Economic Recovery Committee.
“The COVID thing was a form of telling us, ‘Hey folks, you’d better do something,’” said George Kerper, chair of the Searsport broadband committee.
As we’ve heard through the recent Bangor Daily News broadband event series, that is a message that has been reverberating at different levels and in different ways. The pandemic, and all of the remote work, learning and services that have come with it, have laid bare many of the existing connectivity challenges and created new ones. The response to the pandemic has also brought opportunities through new funding.
“We have a whole lot of additional money coming to the communities, cities, towns and the state, and there’s going to be a lot of flexibility on the use of those funds,” Independent Sen. Angus King, who worked to include the broadband funding in the American Rescue Plan Act, told a webinar hosted by the Maine Broadband Coalition in March. He also stressed the importance of making broadband infrastructure “future-proof”.
If this is the start of a new phase in broadband expansion, “future-proof” may just be the operative phrase. Significant resources and political will are materializing, and a key component now will be making sure these investments are durable over the long term and won’t quickly become obsolete.
Peggy Schaffer, the executive director of the ConnectMaine Authority, has also stressed the importance of planning. During one of the BDN’s broadband events last Thursday, Schaffer highlighted existing grants from ConnectME, the Island Institute (a sponsor of the BDN series) and Maine Development Foundation that help communities plan for broadband projects. She also highlighted the potential federal funds in the pipeline, and said the state is still waiting on the federal government to provide the structure for the American Rescue Plan Act funding.
“There’s some resources available. There will be more soon,” Schaffer said Thursday. “So [that’s] why it’s really important for people to get themselves organized and get themselves focused on what they want to do in their community and who their partner is going to be.”
The pandemic has strained resources, but also has helped marshal them. And it has provided important lessons, like the need for adaptability in our systems. Planning with that adaptability in mind, along with securing sustained investment, will be key to turning the moment broadband is having right now into a more long term success story.