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A new broadband authority that would leverage public-private partnerships to bring high-spend internet access to all corners of the state and would be paid for, in part, with $129 million from the American Rescue Plan, is being considered by the Maine Legislature.
The Maine Connectivity Authority, a quasi-public independent agency, is an ambitious push to address both infrastructure and affordability, and a different approach that what the state has taken in its 15-year effort to bring broadband to all of Maine.
The authority would have the power to own property and physical broadband infrastructure, such as poles and wires; hold equity in broadband projects; issue revenue bonds, as well as provide grants, loans and forge partnerships with the private sector and municipalities to leverage investment and coordinate infrastructure buildout.
The effort would cost an estimated $600 million, and initially be supported by the $129 million the state is getting from the federal government for the purpose, as well as another $100 million Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, has proposed in LD 1235.
Gov. Janet Mills, at a news conference Monday announcing the proposal, compared the potential impact to that of the Rural Electrification Administration of the 1930s and the National Highway Act of the 1950s.
"High speed internet is as fundamental as electricity, heat, and water. It is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. We need to have affordable, high-speed internet throughout our state, and with willpower we will get there," she said. "The internet is our highway to the future, yet thousands of people and businesses in Maine still cannot access or afford high-speed internet."
Mills said the proposal is "the best path forward" to use American Rescue Plan money earmarked for the purpose, with long-term solutions as well as speeding up pandemic recovery.
The proactive approach the new authority would take differs greatly from that of the ConnectME authority, the state's 15-year-old agency that has largely "reacted in a piecemeal fashion with various private companies to construct a patchwork of infrastructure," Mills said. The ConnectMe authority would still exist as part of the larger new authority.
The move would push the state forward in an area it's been lagging in for more than a decade. Last year, when voters a a $15 million bond issue to expand broadband, it was the state's first new investment in the industry in more than a decade. Until last year, ConnectME's budget was $1 million, less than a dollar a year for each Maine resident, Mills pointed out.
Bennett said at a hearing of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee this morning that the federal money, combined with the proposed $100 million in state money would be a "substantial downpayment," and while the amounts are unprecedented, so is the scope of the proposal "and is what is required."
He said it is "the big, bold, hairy, audacious goal of this legislature." The establishment of the authority is an amendment to Bennett's bill LD 1484, which the committee heard testimony on this morning. It's cosponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, as well as members of the Legislature's Broadband Caucus, and was being considered along with LD 1235, and other broadband-related bills.
Bennett told the committee that the two-person ConnectME authority "for all its hard work," is not equipped to spend the amount of money that the state is getting from the American Rescue Act in the swift and far-reaching way that's needed. "The reality is, we're getting an unprecedented amount of money to deploy," he said said.
At Monday's news conference, Berry said the move is "a giant leap for Mainekind." At this morning's committee hearing, he asked Bennett whether he agreed. Bennett did. "That's the phrase of the day," he said. "This is big, bold, hairy and audacious, also not my own term, but I think well-applied here."
Bennett said Monday, and reiterated today, that the bill addresses the disparity of "who gets to communicate and who doesn't." It affects students, small-business owners, patients trying to access telehealth, and more. "Their need is urgent and the time is now for a bold bipartisan initiative," he said.
While details haven't been worked out, he said he hopes the authority would be able to create revenue streams that wouldn't rely on tax money.
Mills also testified live at the committee hearing this morning, a rare occurance for a chief executive, and said that the new authority would not be a taxing authority or a regulatory authority, but will have the flexibility and creativity to use the American Rescue Plan money to partner with the private sector and leverage private and local investment.
It's notable because it goes beyond infrastructure and also addresses affordability issues that keep that infrastructure from being built out, which has long been an obstacle to universal high-speed internet in Maine.
Her administration last year also made $5.6 million in federal CARES Act money available to private broadband companies to help shore up internet access for students in rural areas, spurred by the pandemic and remote learning needs.
Mills said that at least 85,000 locations in the state don't meet the minimum standard of 25/3 mbps that ConnectME has set, a standard now considered low of normal internet needs. Mills said the number of locations int he state that can't even access that minimum is unacceptable.
The authority would, in general, address the three major barriers in the state to universal high-speed broadband access:
Bennett also noted to the committee that an important aspect of the authority is that it would be able to collect data about internet availability in a way that ensures confidentiality.
The authority will report to the Legislature and, in 2030, it will be assessed in a sunset review by the Legislature, and there will be a decision made as to whether the agency will continue, be abolished or be transformed, Bennett said.