ORONO, Maine — A member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet will visit the University of Maine today to announce an investment of more than $25 million in federal stimulus money to improve broadband Internet access to rural Maine.
White House officials confirmed Wednesday that U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke will be in Orono to officially award a grant to fund what is known as the Three Ring Binder project.
The proposal, a collaborative effort sponsored by several Maine telecommunications companies and led by Biddeford-based GWI, would create a broadband superhighway across western, northern and Down East Maine. It would bring high-speed Internet access to more than 100 rural communities that currently have few or no options.
Locke’s announcement in Maine will follow Joe Biden’s appearance in Dawsonville, Ga., during which the vice president will kick off the first round of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds designated specifically for broadband initiatives. In all, $7.2 billion will be made available jointly through the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Jared Bernstein, chief economic adviser to the vice president, said during a conference call Wednesday that these projects would help lay the groundwork and foundation for one of the administration’s top priorities. The initial grants target rural areas that are at the highest disadvantage for high-speed Internet service.
The $25.4 million grant to the Biddeford Internet Corp. — a public-private partnership between service providers led by GWI and the University of Maine System — is one of 18 grants in 17 states totaling $182 million that will be announced today.
UMaine officials declined to comment Wednesday and an official representing GWI also declined to comment on the grant until the announcement is made.
White House officials provided the details of today’s announcements on Wednesday evening with the understanding that any stories would be embargoed until this morning.
The National Economic Council, which developed criteria for broadband projects and decided which applications to approve, has broken the grants into four categories.
The grant to fund rural broadband infrastructure in Maine is part of what it calls a “middle-mile project,” according to Peter Swire, an NEC representative and special assistant to the president. Essentially, a middle-mile project connects community anchor institutions to improve delivery of critical services and connects thousands of people to broadband.
The other categories are: last-mile awards, which connect end users like homes, hospitals and schools to their community’s broadband infrastructure, the middle mile; public computing awards, which expand computer center capacity for public use in libraries, community colleges and other public venues; and sustainable adoption awards, which fund innovative projects that promote broadband demand.
More details about the impact of the infrastructure project in Maine will be announced today. Locke is scheduled to speak at noon inside Wells Commons at the University of Maine.
The Three Ring Binder concept would create three fiber-optic rings, one in northern Maine, one from midcoast to Down East and one in western Maine, encompassing 1,100 miles. Those rings would be a shared resource open to all qualified Internet providers.
The project’s total cost is estimated at $32.5 million and would bring broadband to communities with 110,000 households, 600 anchor institutions, 10 University of Maine System campuses and outreach centers, three community colleges and 38 government facilities.
The Three Ring Binder proposal was one of many applications made by Maine entities for broadband funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. So far, it is the only one to be accepted, although more specific project announcements will be rolled out over the next 75 days, according to White House officials.
Larry Strickling, assistant secretary for the U.S. Commerce Department, said Wednesday that the screening process for grant applications was thorough and comprehensive. The commerce and agriculture departments have received more than 2,200 applications, he said.
Bernstein, Biden’s economic adviser, said the broadband infrastructure projects would create thousands of jobs, one of the main goals of stimulus funding. Initially, projects will employ technological specialists, factory workers and construction workers. Other jobs would then be created indirectly, he said, through increased economic activity facilitated by the new broadband network.