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Updated: March 1, 2021

$71M in federal funds will help roll out broadband access for rural Maine

Courtesy / Federal Communications Commission The colors on the map represent areas funded by Maine’s winning bids for Federal Communication Commission awards. Green represents areas served by Consolidated Communications and Pioneer Wireless, red is StarlinkServices and blue, on the coast, is Redzone.

With recently awarded funding of $71 million from the Federal Communications Commission, more rural areas of Maine may receive access to broadband internet over the next seven years.

“The discussion has shifted from, ‘Is it needed? Should we do it?’ to ‘How and when?’” said Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. 

Johnson was a panelist at a virtual webinar hosted last week by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and Mission Broadband, a division of Bangor-based consulting firm ProInfoNet, which aims to expand broadband to underserved communities nationwide.

“I’m pretty sure there isn’t anyone who would say connectivity isn’t important,” Johnson continued. “Connectivity is part of all our lives, as it relates to education or working remotely now. Certainly we’re seeing telehealth expand.”

Screenshot / Maine State Chamber of Commerce
Heather Johnson

She added, “Now that we’ve changed some of these behaviors, as long as we can create the infrastructure to support them, we can provide access to services on a very broad basis for a much lower cost as we go forward.”

The webinar was the first in a four-part webinar series, “Bring ME Up to Speed,” on expanding broadband in Maine. 

The $71 million is coming from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a program designed to close the digital divide in the United States through construction of rural broadband networks.

“We hear frustration all the time about people feeling like they’re being left out,” said Sarah Davis, senior director of government affairs at telecommunications provider Consolidated Communications who was also part of the panel.

Consolidated’s largest market is Maine, she noted.

Maine awards

Four companies will carry out the work:

• Consolidated Communications won $31 million to build infrastructure to 11,513 locations in 1,532  census blocks.                   

• Pioneer Wireless Inc. won $5.5 million, covering 1,638 locations in 243 census blocks.

• RedzoneWireless won $507,000, covering 755 locations in 39 census blocks.

• StarlinkServices LLC won $34 million, covering 13,849 locations in 1,978 census blocks.

Starlink is a SpaceX program that is now in beta tests to provide internet coverage via low-earth-orbit satellites, according to its website.

In all, the Maine funds will provide service to 27,755 locations.

“The most important part of this is the mapping,” said Davis. 

Screenshot / Maine State Chamber of Commerce
Sarah Davis

Davis noted that a “granular” mapping program during Phase II will help providers identify unserved locations.

“Everyone wants broadband and everyone wanted broadband yesterday,” she said. “It’s all incremental. Every day that we’re building fiber, we’re pushing it closer to the consumer. And every time we push it closer to the consumer, we are creating an easier situation to get to the next consumer.”

Awardees will be required to offer broadband to all locations in their census blocks by 2027. The first construction year is expected to begin in 2022.

National program

The total budget is $20.4 billion for the program, which was divided into two phases. Phase I provided up to $16 billion to providers to expand broadband to census blocks that are completely unserved by broadband. Last year, an auction for the Phase 1 money opened Oct. 22, and awards were announced Dec. 20. Nationwide, 180 bidders won $9.2 billion to provide broadband to 5.2 million locations.

Phase II will provide $4.4 billion, plus the remainder of the Phase I money. Phase II will address census blocks not completed in Phase I, plus census blocks that are partially served by broadband.

‘Last-mile’ grants

The program coincides with related initiatives. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Telecommunications Association of Maine and Mission Broadband recently endorsed the American Broadband Buildout Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., to provide up to $15 billion in matching grants to help states and state-approved entities build “last-mile” infrastructure to bring high-speed broadband directly to homes and businesses in rural areas that lack it. 

“The American Broadband Buildout Act would provide a much-needed boost to small businesses throughout Maine, providing them with the high-speed internet access they need to stay connected and competitive,” Dana Connors, president and CEO of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said in a news release.  

“By establishing a partnership with providers, this bill uses public dollars to leverage private investment to build up the economies of some of the areas most hard hit by the pandemic in a sustainable way that ensures accountability and efficiency,” said Benjamin Sanborn, the Telecommunications Association of Maine’s executive director. 

Said Jim Rogers, president of Mission Broadband, “The $15 billion program will expand much needed broadband to our residents who continue to struggle with insufficient broadband connectivity." 

Collins added, “As a native of Aroostook County, I know how important high-speed internet is to the vitality of rural communities."

The act would:

• Require projects to be in “unserved” areas, where broadband is unavailable at speeds that meet FCC standard.  

• Require funding matches through public-private partnerships between broadband service providers and the state.  

• Require that projects be designed to be “future proof,” meaning the infrastructure installed must be capable of delivering higher speeds as broadband accelerates in the future.  

• Direct the FCC to prioritize funding of projects in states that have traditionally lagged behind the national average in terms of broadband subscribers and are at risk of falling further behind as broadband speeds increase.

• Provide grants to states and state-designated entities for digital literacy and public awareness campaigns highlighting the benefits and possibilities of broadband service.

Emergency discounts

U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, last week joined Senate colleagues Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Mark Warner, D-Va., in a letter to the FCC, urging it to administer the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program in a way that helps address the longstanding digital divide.

The program was created on Dec. 27, 2020 with passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, which established an Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund of $3.2 billion to help Americans afford internet service during the pandemic. The act directed the commission to use the fund to establish an Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, under which eligible low-income households may receive a discount off the cost of broadband service and certain connected devices, and participating providers can receive a reimbursement for such discounts. 

The program will conclude when the fund is expended or six months after the end of the public health emergency.

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