U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is introducing a bill on Wednesday that would provide $15 billion in matching grants to bring broadband to unserved rural areas of the country. Credit: Drew Angerer / AP

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins introduced a bill in Congress on Wednesday that would provide $15 billion in matching federal grants to expand high-speed broadband to uncovered rural areas.

The first bill in the new Congress from the recently reelected Republican senator, which is co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nevada, would provide matching grants to help states and state-approved entities build “last-mile” infrastructure to bring fast internet into homes and businesses in areas that lack it.

The coronavirus pandemic, which sent workers and students home for extended periods, highlighted the so-called digital divide between urban and rural areas of the country. It has stressed internet speeds as various household members vie for access time.

Gov. Janet Mills also highlighted the need to improve broadband access to make the state more competitive in her budget speech Tuesday evening. She proposed a $30 million broadband bond and highlighted broadband tie-ins along the New England Clean Energy Connect hydropower corridor as one route to expand the state’s connectivity. Maine voters also passed a $15 million broadband bond in July 2020 as pandemic restrictions revealed the extent of Maine’s high-speed internet shortfall.

The bill from Collins and Rosen would require projects to be located in areas where broadband is unavailable at speeds that meet the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of high-speed internet. Those are a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of 3 megabits per second. The Maine Broadband Coalition provides a speed test on its website.

The federal funding authorized in the bill would be matched through public-private partnerships between the broadband service provider and the home state, investments Collins said would help assure the projects would be well thought out.

The bill also requires that the projects be designed so the infrastructure can deliver higher speeds as broadband improves in the future. It will direct the FCC to prioritize funding of projects in states that have lagged behind the national average of broadband subscribers and are at risk of falling further behind. It also will provide grants to states and other entities for digital literacy and public awareness campaigns.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a renewed urgency to ensuring families have a reliable connection to their loved ones, co-workers, schools and medical services,” Collins said.

The bill has been endorsed by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, NCTA – The Internet and Television Association, the Telecommunications Association of Maine and Mission Broadband.

Benjamin Sanborn, executive director of the Maine telecommunications association, said the bill would build up the economies of some areas most hard hit by the pandemic in a way that ensures accountability.