Fiber connections bring broadband internet to businesses and households in Down East Maine. Credit: Courtesy of the Downeast Broadband Utility

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Andrew Butcher is president of the Maine Connectivity Authority.

Earlier this month, I was honored and humbled to be unanimously confirmed and sworn in as president of the newly created Maine Connectivity Authority. Given the vote of confidence by Gov. Janet Mills and the Maine Senate, I recognize that it’s time to hit the ground running. Many Mainers cannot afford to wait for broadband access.

For that reason, I’m pleased to share that the Maine Connectivity Authority Board of Directors recently voted to allocate $10 million of federal relief funds to ConnectMaine’s spring 2022 grant round, fueling the pipeline of communities that are ready. Those funds, combined with $6.5 million of funds remaining from the 2020 broadband bond, represent the highest volume of financial resources ever made available to Maine communities for reaching the last mile. The MCA and ConnectMaine are working together to support the grassroots of community broadband organizing, while also implementing new tools for the state to be proactive about the future of our digital infrastructure.

While the MCA is a new agency, the work has been well underway since last year, when bipartisan legislation created our quasi-governmental body to expand high-speed internet across Maine and be more proactive in addressing problems. The road ahead is long, but rest assured: Expanding broadband access is one of our state’s imperatives this year and next..  

Tens of thousands of Mainers currently lack access to broadband, according to federal standards. Given that those standards were established more than a decade ago, the number of Mainers without today’s updated definition of “high-speed internet” is even higher.

There’s a reason why, in 2020, over three-quarters of Maine voters approved Question 1, the high-speed internet infrastructure bond. Authorizing $15 million in general obligation bonds to support high-speed internet infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas, the people of Maine sent a clear message: It’s time for digital equity — for all.

Equity may be an elusive goal, but it can be achieved with the Maine Connectivity Authority’s new mandate and the raft of federal funds coming our way. We are focusing on projects, places, and people to optimize broadband deployment and reach the last mile in Maine. High-speed internet access should not be determined by place of residence — not in 2022, and definitely not in a COVID-19 world that is more virtual than ever.

It may sound like a cliche at this point, but we are still in this together. The expansion of broadband across Maine will require a continued surge of community organizing to prepare for broadband expansion in local municipalities. Groups of school officials, small business owners, civic leaders, librarians, and community volunteers have the power to create momentum and consensus for action, as has been demonstrated in dozens of places across the state.

Counties and municipalities have important power, as they still have funding made available through the American Rescue Plan and can help make strategic investments to enhance connectivity throughout the state. The MCA encourages partnership and is eager to support regional efforts.  

In the coming months, the MCA will accelerate the execution of its newly approved strategy plan, which is available at MaineConnectivity.org. While the work is daunting, there is power in tangible, incremental action. For example, Mainers can assist the MCA by helping “color in the map,” which means taking a speedtest with the Maine Broadband Coalition and helping us generate invaluable data surrounding the patterns of internet service throughout the state. Mainers can also support their community’s broadband committee, serving as the engine of local and regional connectivity. Then there’s the value of spreading the word about new resources for affordable internet service through programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Together, we can take real action now that brightens Maine’s digital future for decades to come. We can get there from here.