Broadband grant bids under study

Posted Sept. 29, 2009, at 9:35 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Several major projects that would expand rural Maine’s access to broadband Internet service cleared the first hurdle Tuesday in a process to apply for part of $4 billion in federal funds set aside as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“I think we have a good chance of getting some grant money,” said Rep. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, the chairwoman of the State Broadband Strategy Council. “We have put a lot of work into looking at these projects and weeded some out, and there are some that we are not sure about, because we could not get all the information.”

The council reviewed 19 projects, from a public computer center in Ellsworth to a high-capacity fiber-optic cable that would provide increased speed and capability to 100 rural communities. Through the review process the group gave the proposals a “green light” if they were to be forwarded for further consideration and a “red light” if they should not be considered. They gave a “yellow light” to projects for which they did not feel they had enough information.

The criteria for the federal grants are that they should provide broadband capacity to unserved or underserved rural areas, support economic development, preserve or create jobs, and are both economically viable and have overall value to the area served.

“A green light simply means that this is a project the Broadband Strategy Council thinks should be considered for funding,” said Richard Thompson, the state’s chief information officer and Gov. John Baldacci’s point person on the grant process. He said the council forwards its recommendations to the ConnectMe Authority for another review. That group’s recommendations then go to Baldacci and through Thompson will be sent to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by mid-October.

“The NTIA has made it clear they will make the final decision on what is funded,” Thompson said.

There are thousands of requests nationwide for the $4 billion that is available, and there is no guarantee any of the Maine proposals will be funded. Thompson said the language in the law says every state will get some money, but that could be part of a grant to serve several states.

“But I think when they look at what has been proposed, and the review process we used, we will get some of the money,” Dill said.

Several major projects were recommended by the council. They include two separate projects put forth by FairPoint Communications to improve service to Aroostook, Washington and Hancock counties. They total about $6.5 million to expand their DSL services to rural areas beyond what they are already committed to do under their agreement with regulators when they bought the landlines and DSL service of Verizon.

Also getting a green light was TDS Telecomm, parent of the Somerset Telephone Co. and the West Penobscot Telephone and Telegraph Co., which submitted a proposal of just more than $6 million to expand DSL services in their areas.

The council also supported the “Three Ring Binder” project put forward by a consortium of companies led by GWI, a Biddeford-based Internet service provider. It is seeking $25.4 million to build a high-capacity fiber-optic network that would provide greater capacity to 100 rural communities as well as some of its member organizations, such as the University of Maine System.

Instead of directly serving individual customers, often called the last mile service, the “ring binder’” proposal would improve the backbone of the Internet in the state and provide wholesale capacity to other retail sellers.

Among the projects that were turned down was a proposal from Motorbrain, a Lincoln-based communications company. Council members questioned the $5.7 million proposal’s reliance on satellite technology.

The ConnectMe Authority next reviews the report of the council. Thompson, who also serves on the authority, said he expects to forward the final recommendations from the governor in the next few weeks.

“We are on a tight turn-around time,” he said, “but we have no idea when NTIA will make its decisions.”

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