May 24, 2018
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Maine raises broadband Internet standard, turns down Orono grant

By Darren Fishell, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — The state’s broadband authority on Friday voted unanimously to raise standards for projects it funds by assigning higher scores to proposals that would provide speeds catering to home and small businesses.

The ConnectME Authority resets its standard for projects each year in an effort to keep up with advances in technology, a process that so far has focused on how fast a user can download data from the Internet.

The new standard set Friday includes for the first time speed requirements for uploads, which supporters of the change said would serve small businesses.

Dan Sullivan, IT manager at the Woodland Pulp mill in Baileyville, said the higher standard more accurately reflects Internet speeds required for a small business or home business.

“You have an opportunity to lead here and say that Maine is going to do this right,” Sullivan said.

He said he has been opposed to some of the ConnectME Authority’s grant awards — including one in the town of Cooper, where he lives — because he said the standard allows those projects to run on outdated technologies.

The new standard would qualify any areas with broadband connections slower than 10 megabits per second for both downloads and uploads — a 10-10 symmetric standard — as “unserved.”

The changes do not prohibit projects at lower speeds from qualifying for grant money, but bases a component of a project’s score on how it measures up against those speeds.

Tim Schneider, the state’s public advocate, said that setting such a standard would contribute to building networks more likely to stand the test of time.

“I feel very strongly that the limited funds that we have should be spent on networks that are future-proof and where it’s highly unlikely where we’ll go back for a second round of funding,” Schneider said.

The ConnectME Authority awards about $750,000 in grants for broadband projects each year.

Fletcher Kittredge, president of Internet provider GWI and chairman of the ConnectME Authority’s advisory board, said Friday that the level of attention from lawmakers and others on issues related to broadband this year could result in the authority getting more money for its annual budget.

Citing momentum behind broadband issues, the board agreed it would gather sometime in the next few months — before its next formal meeting — to discuss whether it should provide testimony to the Legislature and on which bills coming up in the next session.

Phil Lindley, executive director of the ConnectME Authority, identified 35 bill titles submitted in the Legislature this year that could deal in some way with broadband, including measures he said are unprecedented, such as issuing a bond for millions to fund broadband infrastructure projects.

And while Gov. Paul LePage did not include specific broadband project funding in his two-year budget proposal, he did write to the broadband agency in December advocating for the higher 10-10 broadband standard.

The money the authority awards goes to projects like one in Orono and Old Town to install a municipally owned fiber-optic network that would serve about 320 customers.

The towns will not get that money after a separate vote from the ConnectME Authority board Friday, which found that Time Warner Cable had grounds for challenging the award. The vote was unanimous with one abstention from board member Dick Thompson, who works for the University of Maine, which is a partner in the project.

Time Warner argued that the project overlapped with services it already provides.

Belle Ryder, assistant town manager for Orono, told the board Thursday that the project still would move ahead, but with municipal funds that, with the grant, would have gone toward other municipal uses.

Ryder told the Bangor Daily News on Thursday that the town has money from a tax-increment financing district that could be used for the purpose.

If it had received the grant, OTO Fiber planned to spend $112,000 in municipal funds, $118,720 of other town resources, $125,000 worth of work from the University of Maine and $70,000 worth of work from Maine Fiber Co., which operates the Three Ring Binder project.


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