AUGUSTA, Maine — The head of Maine’s broadband agency says accessing federal dollars and convincing communities of the importance of high-speed internet could prove to be impediments to expanding the expensive infrastructure to rural areas even if more funding is approved.
Both parties agree the state must expand its broadband infrastructure as an economic driver, particularly for rural regions. It’s been linked to everything from telehealth medicine to higher education, though buy-in from the state is seen as critical to attracting private investors.
The ConnectMaine Authority estimates it in its action plan that it would take $600 million to bring high-speed internet to 95 percent of the state, one of its major goals. It recommends the state invest $200 million at minimum over the next five years to reach that goal, with the idea that public-private partnerships and federal dollars would make up the rest.
But funding efforts before the Legislature would touch just a sliver of the underserved areas of Maine. Gov. Janet Mills called for a $15 million broadband bond during her State of the State address last month after legislative Republicans blocked a similar proposal last year.
Peggy Schaffer, the agency’s executive director, told a legislative committee on Thursday that how federal dollars are distributed makes it difficult for a state to know how much money an expansion project might have. She said telecommunications companies get first priority on funding, based on how costly the area they are serving is and the provider’s footprint.
Accessing money from other sources — like the U.S. Department of Agriculture — can also be a challenge for rural communities because of the workload associated with getting information from providers and completing the work, she said.
Schaffer said the federal government’s processes don’t “leave a lot of room … for the state to incentivize a company to participate” in expansion projects to rural areas without kicking in a large share of money on its own.
Under the state’s plan, grants would be awarded based on how aggressively a community is pursuing its own, whether at least 20 percent of potential customers are now underserved and that the community can operate the network. Unserved areas would need a certain threshold of support and applicants with federal and local matches would be scored higher.
Meeting all of these criteria could be tough for rural communities. Schaffer said the authority is struggling to develop momentum in rural communities around the importance of investing in broadband, which can be expensive.
“It’s important for all economic development in those communities going forward,” she said.
That local support could be key for getting Republicans to sign onto any funding proposals. Rep. Jeff Hanley, R-Pittston, said he wants to see a requirement that ConnectMaine be required to do outreach making sure smaller communities are educated on the process and receive help they need to apply for funding.
“They’ll have to help them help themselves,” he said.
The Democratic governor’s proposal is similar to a bill from Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, which proposes a one-time $15 million appropriation to the ConnectME Authority. Another bill from Rep. David McCrea, D-Fort Fairfield, would allocate $8 million each year to the authority.
If only one proposal gets approved, it would only fund 2 percent of the underserved or unserved households in the state. The authority estimates it costs about $35,000 to construct 1 mile of infrastructure. About 17,660 miles of roads in the state are underserved, or 83,000 addresses.