The Maine Legislature has set a goal of delivering broadband access to all communities in the state, but it’s going to require a major push — not to mention many millions of dollars of investment — for the state to claim that victory.
That’s according to Peggy Schaffer, who earlier this year took the lead of the state’s broadband expansion program, the ConnectME Authority, and who gave a talk Thursday evening in Bangor as part of the BDN’s Dirigo Speaks series.
Schaffer described a number of the environmental and economic development benefits that could come from extending access to high-speed internet around the state, whether it’s helping farmers use programs that remind them when to water their fields or giving homeowners access to programs that could help them cut their energy usage.
But she also mentioned several serious impediments to reaching that vision, including limited funding and a lack of reliable data about the actual speed of internet available across Maine.
An estimated 10 percent of Maine households, or 55,359 of them, cannot access internet speeds that the ConnectMe Authority has defined as acceptable — at least 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload — according to ConnectME’s annual report for 2018.
Piscataquis and Franklin counties had the greatest reported shortages, with more than half their households lacking access to those speeds. There are also sizable shortages in Somerset, Waldo, Aroostook and Washington counties.
But the holes are probably greater than those estimates suggest, according to Schaffer, because they are based on maps from the Federal Communication Commission.
Internet service providers are allowed to share their fastest advertised speeds in a U.S. Census block with the FCC, not the slower speeds that some homes in that block actually experience, Schaffer said. That can in turn affect how much funding federal agencies provide to those communities.
“Mapping is a significant challenge because much of the federal money, FCC or [U.S. Department of Agriculture] money, depends on this map to show that you are unserved,” Schaffer said. “When the map is not good, the funding stream does not flow where it should flow.”
To provide the state with more reliable data, Schaffer told the 30 or so audience members in Bangor to immediately go home, test the speed of their home internet on the website Speedtest.net and share it with the ConnectMe Authority via the mapping section of its website.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to spreading broadband internet access to the last 10 percent of Maine households is the price tag: It could cost more than $1 billion, according to Schaffer.
The ConnectMe Authority can award grant funding and provide guidance to communities that are interested in bringing broadband internet to their residents, but it has been constrained by its budget, she said.
Until recently, the ConnectMe Authority has received its only funding from a 0.25 percent surcharge on telecommunication bills that has brought in $900,000 annually, but that has been trending downward in its revenues
But the two-year budget approved by the Legislature did authorize another source of revenue for the program that will take effect in 2020, providing it with another $1.9 million. That money will be taken from another surcharge that Mainers have already been paying on their telephone bills to support the state’s 911 system, Schaffer said.
Schaffer also told the attendees that a bond proposal from Gov. Janet Mills, which the Legislature may take up later this summer, would raise about $30 million for the ConnectMeAuthority.