March 19, 2019
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Rural Internet expansion bill carried over to next session

AUGUSTA, Maine — An Aroostook County legislator said Thursday afternoon that despite his efforts, a bill to expand broadband service to rural parts of the state is on hold, at least until the next Legislative session.

Rep. Robert Saucier of Presque Isle said Thursday afternoon that his bill to expand universal broadband and high-speed Internet into the 6 percent of the state that has no access to such service was carried over by the House and Senate earlier this week.

“There were so many broadband bills this session,” he said. “I believe there were about 35. The Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee and the leadership didn’t want mine to get killed or combined into other bills, so the decision was made to carry it over.”

The measure, LD 826, sought to increase funding to the ConnectME Authority from $1 million to $5 million in order to expand universal broadband and high-speed Internet into the 6 percent of the state that cannot access it.

If the bill had passed, the ConnectME Authority would have used the additional funding to increase the rate of strategic broadband investment and leveraged additional federal funding to build more infrastructure in unserved areas.

ConnectME Authority is a component unit of state government that works to bring broadband to everyone while also helping students, business owners and other residents grasp how valuable a tool it can be.

Saucier said the ConnectME Authority is currently reorganizing, as far as reviewing the central duty of the organization, its goals and policies, essential duties in furtherance of broadband goals and more.

He said that the committee decided to hold the bill and let the authority get organized before passing the bill, something he said he understood.

He also said that the low budget for bonds factored into the decision.

“There is no money for any bonds,” he said. “There were only two bonds that got funded this session, I believe. I was lucky that my bill did not get killed by the Appropriations Committee.”

Jim Gerritsen, who owns and operates Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater with his wife, Megan, was a major catalyst for the bill. The organic specialty potato farm is heavily dependent on technology for record keeping, order taking, cataloging and more.

Gerritsen, who was not available for comment Thursday, has said that even when the Internet at the farm does work, it is frustratingly slow, and the cost of upgrading on their own is prohibitive.

The representative said that while he was disappointed with the delay, he was confident that he could get the bill moving along again the next session.

“I think everyone recognizes the importance of it,” he said Thursday.


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