AUGUSTA, Maine — FairPoint lobbyists and officials are charging the University of Maine System is unfairly competing with them for federal funds to improve broadband access in the state with potentially tens of millions of dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act fueling the dispute.
“The fact is, we are competing with the University of Maine,” said Severin Beliveau, an Augusta attorney representing FairPoint. “I am concerned at what the university is proposing here, because it is receiving a form of subsidy, no, they are in fact receiving a subsidy from taxpayers, in competing with the private sector.”
Jeff Letourneau, the associate director of information technology at UMS, said the proposal is not the university’s but is from a private-public partnership and that the UMS is just one member.
“The university is not putting forward a stimulus proposal,” he said. “What we are doing is backing one that best meets our needs.”
The issue before the state Broadband Strategy Council is which proposals it will recommend, if any, for funding under the federal law.
Maine will have at least one project funded under the federal recovery act, which has more than $7 billion nationwide for both building broadband capacity and expansion of broadband access to areas without service.
FairPoint is developing a $20 million proposal that builds on its existing Internet infrastructure. Officials told the panel their proposal will bring broadband access to 90 percent of Maine by 2013. They have not yet filed that proposal with federal officials.
Rep. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, the co-chairman of the council said she was puzzled by FairPoint’s comments. She said the recovery act spells out that applications are encouraged from both the public and private sectors for building both greater capacity that the university says is needed and access to broadband, the stated goal of the FairPoint proposal.
“I don’t see anything wrong with the university seeking the best system for them,” she said, “and working with others in the private sector to get that system. I think that’s fine.”
Dill said the council has not seen the actual proposals from either group, although some proposals have been submitted for smaller projects. She hopes the parties will cooperate and seek federal aid to build a system that is best for the state.
Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, also serves on the council. He expressed concern about the apparent lack of cooperation by all of the parties involved. He said Maine needs cooperation to compete in the global economy.
“I am a lay person coming to this,” he said. “I am a private enterprise guy, a small-business man. But I don’t want to see us building parallel turnpikes.”
He said he viewed the role of the council as one of facilitating cooperation in meeting the state goal of providing access to broadband throughout the state at a competitive price. He said the goal is also to provide the capacity that is needed.
“FairPoint will lose customers, some of its best customers like hospitals and other institutions to the university proposal,” said Tony Buxton, a lawyer that works with Beliveau, in an interview after the meeting.
Letourneau, in an interview, said the university and other high bandwidth users have tried to work with FairPoint to meet their needs at an affordable cost.
He said moving huge files, such as video or medical imaging files, take a lot of bandwidth for the actual time they are transmitted.
“They want to charge us for the widest bandwidth we might use, our peak usage,” he said. “We don’t need that much capacity all the time.”
Letourneau said for the university and other high bandwidth users such as The Jackson Laboratory to compete, they need to have affordable access to large amounts of bandwidth, only when they need it.
Dill said the council will take a close look at all of the proposals that are filed by midmonth with federal officials and decide later in the year whether to endorse any of the proposals as meeting the state policy goal of broadband access both for individuals and businesses.