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March 23, 2021

With new broadband funding, Maine officials hope to build 'future proof' network

Courtesy / Federal Communications Commission Multiple sources of money are coming to Maine to expand broadband access. Seen here is a map that represents Maine’s winning bids for a recent round of Federal Communications Commission funds. 

Maine is expected to receive at least $100 million and perhaps as much as $120 million in broadband funds through the federal government’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan recently signed into law.

The money comes on top of other federal and state funding sources for broadband.

They include a ConnectMaine infrastructure matching grant program; a U.S. Department of Agriculture ReConnect Program likely to soon open a grant round; the recent award of  $71 million from the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund; and a new round of CARES Act funding passed in December to address tribal infrastructure, affordability, education connectivity and more. 

Officials talked of making the network "future proof," or less likely to become obsolete as demand grows and technology changes. 

“This is a historic opportunity for Maine,” said Peggy Schaefer, executive director of the ConnectMaine Authority. “It’s time to plan, to think broadly about what we want to do, why we want to do it, and make it future-proof."

Schaefer participated in an online forum hosted Monday by the Maine Broadband Coalition to discuss implications of the stimulus funds for broadband expansion in the state.

The stimulus package that President Joe Biden signed into law on March 11 includes $7 billion to expand access to reliable internet.

Screenshot / Courtesy Maine Broadband Coalition
Peggy Schaefer.

The goal of the forum was to share what is known and unknown about the funding for broadband in Maine as well as help communities, regions and partnerships get as ready as possible to utilize an array of federal, state and local funding that is enabled through the new law. 

“I think this is a transformational moment for Maine and we’ve got to seize it,” said U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who kicked off the forum. 

King noted money disbursed under the act will be in the form of a block grant, which provides states with a great deal of discretion about how to use it. He advocated for the broadband funds to be spent in a way that’s as “future-proof” as possible and as widespread as possible. 

“We’ve got a key moment here,” he said.

Schaefer said the U.S. Department of Treasury still needs to work out the structure and timeline for disbursement, although it’s anticipated there will be a fairly fast turnaround, with guidelines to be developed within 60 days of the bill’s passage. Also still to be determined is how long the money can be used, she added.

But as things move forward, she said, it will be important to think about how the latest infusion of money can be “stacked” with other broadband funding streams, to address not just infrastructure but other challenges such as affordability and access to devices.

“It’s important, as we talk about this, to begin to think about how we can stack these funds,” she said. 

Another important point, she said, is that the act’s designation of funds for municipal and county use, as well as for education, can include broadband. For example, money going through the U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission to school districts to help schools reopen can include expenditures for broadband connectivity, affordability and devices. 

“There’s significant opportunity in all of these funds,” she said. “This requires planning. It also requires open communication with all of your partners — towns, schools, people in your communities, ISPs.”

“There is a lot going on in a matter of just a few short months,” said Andrew Butcher, director of the Maine Broadband Coalition. “There is a real sea shift in available resources.”

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