AUGUSTA, Maine — Two bills have been introduced in the Legislature aimed at limiting the University of Maine System’s ability to participate in efforts to expand broadband access in the state, but UMS officials say the bills are not needed.
Sen. Lisa Marrache, D-Waterville, the assistant Senate majority leader, has introduced a bill that would ban the system from using any tuition money to help pay for efforts to expand broadband access.
“People are paying money in to go to college,” she said, “I don’t think any of that money should be used to subsidize the broadband effort that really is competing with the private sector.”
Marrache said constituents raised the issue with her after charges were leveled this summer that UMS is competing with private companies in the broadband business.
Severin Beliveau, an Augusta attorney representing FairPoint, blasted UMS at a meeting of the State Broadband Advisory Council, arguing their participation in a group seeking federal funds was improper competition with the private sector.
“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,” he said.
Jeff Letourneau, associate director of information technology at UMS, said the university is part of a private-public partnership created to provide broadband capacity at a “wholesale” level and the university’s role is minor.
“The grant from the federal government went to GWI [Great Works Internet] and two private investors,” he said. “As for tuition subsidizing our broadband efforts, that does not happen and will not happen.”
U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke visited Orono earlier this month to announce a $25.4 million federal grant for the so-called “Three Ring Binder” project that will construct a 1,100-mile network of high-capacity fiber-optic cable through northern, western and Down East Maine areas.
“This is what is called a middle mile project,” Letourneau said. “This will allow for greater capacity that is available to anyone. It will not be the part of someone’s proprietary network.”
Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, serves on the Legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee. He has introduced a bill he said will prevent any “undue” competition by the university with existing broadband providers. He said he is concerned the efforts by the university could have unintended consequences on private companies that already are providing access.
“If the university is able to bypass some of the competitive markets, and cherry pick, it could affect the ability to deliver broadband to others,” he said.
Fitts said the approach being used by UMS and GWI will result in some high-capacity users bypassing FairPoint and other existing providers. He is worried the loss of revenue will hurt efforts to expand access in rural areas of the state to both small businesses and residential customers.
“I know this will cause a lot of discussion in committee,” he said. “But we need to have that discussion.”
Letourneau said the university and other high bandwidth users such as The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor 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, takes a lot of bandwidth for the actual time they are transmitted and he said getting charged based on maximum need, not usual need, is too expensive.
“What has happened over the years is that government has invested in broadband access in rural areas because the private sector was not responding to the need,” Letourneau said.
He points to the E-rate program that has provided federal subsides to schools and libraries to have high-speed Internet access and the billions of dollars in grants being made under the stimulus act to expand broadband across the country.
“That’s what the grant was all about that was announced earlier this month,” he said. “It’s providing capacity that is not there now and is affordable.”
In addition, Letourneau said, the Legislature appropriated $3 million in 2007 to the university to help expand its access to broadband and that has helped Jackson Lab improve its connections. He said while most understand the Internet is the superhighway for information, just how that superhighway is used by different users is more difficult to explain.
“It’s like we are going through a fleet leasing company instead of paying FedEx for each delivery,” he said. “This might not only drive an expansion of broadband, but an expansion of broadband that is affordable.”
With the Legislature trying to move legislation quickly this session, hearings on both bills could be scheduled next month.