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  • Broadband bill clears Maine House hurdle with bipartisan support

    Broadband bill clears Maine House hurdle with bipartisan support

    Bill boosts economic development through $1 million in infrastructure funding

    The Maine House of Repersentatives, on March 3, 2016, gave its initial approval to an economic development bill that would expand broadband access in rural Maine. 

    The voted “under the hammer,” or by unanimous consent, on LD 826, An Act To Promote Maine’s Economic Development and Critical Communications for Rural Farms, Businesses and Residence by Strategic Public Investments in High-speed Internet.

    The bill provides $1 million from the General Fund annually to the ConnectME Authority, which is charged with facilitating universal availability of broadband in the state. It would bring total annual funding for ConnectME up to $2.2 million.

    “The House recognized that high-speed, high-capacity Internet access is not a luxury, but as much of a necessity as decent roads and reliable electricity,” said Rep. Robert Saucier, D-Presque Isle, who is sponsoring the bill with the backing of the Aroostook County Farm Bureau and the Maine Farm Bureau. “We need this investment if Maine – all of Maine – is going to prosper and succeed.”

    The state’s primary fiber-optic network, called the Three-Ring Binder, consists of three loops in southern, northern and Downeast Maine. But many Maine communities, homes and businesses remain unconnected to this 1,100-mile long broadband interstate and will not be able to make use of it until the rest of the network – the off-ramps and local road off the interstate – are in place.

    Eighty percent of Maine households are underserved in terms of broadband, and some have no access at all. Adequate access is definite as speeds of 10 mbps for both uploading and downloading, the type of speed needed to videoconference, take an online class or share files with colleagues and clients.

    “Maine needs a 21st century infrastructure if we’re going to compete successfully in the 21st century economy,” said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, House chair of the Energy, Utilities and Technology. “Kicking the can down the road is no way to jump start economic development or grow good jobs with strong wages. Now is the time to act.” 

    The bill faces further action in the House and Senate.

  • The next move to expand broadband with ConnectME is under consideration with lawmakers

    Broadband in Maine needs expansion to  push speeds to national levels.  While the ConnectME agency, strated with Gov. John Baldacci, brought many areas broadband withsmall grants to extend service to pockets of un-served homes it's time to expand it's mission.

     South Portland recently announced that its municipal network was coming online, Islesboro voted to spend $200,000 designing and planning for a municipal broadband network, and in the Maine Legislature, a handful of important bills have passed out of committee and will be coming to the House and Senate floors for debate.  Two of these bills, in particular, are important to accelerating progress toward better connections – important enough that we’re asking our readers to talk to their Legislators and Support them.

    LD 1063 – An Act To Promote Community Broadband Planning and Strengthen Economic Opportunity throughout Maine

    What it is:

    This bi-partisan bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Representative Sara Gideon and Republican Senator Garrett Mason, would restructure the ConnectME Authority, Maine’s state agency for broadband issues.  Previously, ConnectME has primarily focused on providing small grants to extend service to pockets of un-served homes.  Under LD-1063, ConnectME would take on more of a planning and leadership role, with the following key responsibilities:

    • Establish criteria for served and unserved areas.
    • Promote the use of broadband.
    • Support local and regional broadband planning.
    • Facilitate state support of broadband deployment.
    • Collect and disseminate information about broadband use.

    Why this bill is important:

    The past policy of making small, incremental investments in DSL and fixed wireless to patch holes in Maine’s existing broadband network can no longer keep Maine competitive.  Replacing Maine’s aging broadband infrastructure will likely require over a billion dollars from public and private sources and take several years to complete.  Unwilling to wait, several Maine communities have already taken action to improve broadband access for their citizens, but there has been a void of public leadership and expertise to help ensure that these individual investments will work together well and not waste resources that could be saved through coordination and planning.

    A ConnectME Authority with greater technical expertise and the specific mission to help plan and support local investment can help manage these local investments in the context of a statewide broadband strategic plan, so that such pitfalls are avoided.  We believe that this bill is vital.

    LD 1185 – An Act to Establish the Municipal Gigabit Broadband Network Access Fund

    What it is:

    This bill, sponsored by Republican Representative Norm Higgins would create the Municipal Gigabit Broadband Network Fund to provide grants to communities, regional partnerships and municipalities in support of public-private partnerships to support municipal gigabit fiber-optic networks.  These grants would include $20-25,000 planning grants to help underwrite the community’s cost of gathering information and developing a local broadband plan, including:

    • Identification of local broadband needs and goals.
    • Inventory of existing broadband infrastructure.
    • An analysis of additional infrastructure needed to meet needs and goals.
    • Network designs, cost estimates and operating models in support of the additional infrastructure.
    • An evaluation of the impact of local policies, procedures and rules on the speed and cost of broadband deployment.

    The Fund would also include implementation grants of up to $200,000 to communities to offset the costs of implementing a broadband plan that meets the goals defined for the planning grant, provided that the municipality puts in a minimum 25% cash match.

    It’s important to note that for LD 1185 to succeed, it must both be passed into law and funded by the legislature because it calls for $6 million in funds from the General Fund.

    Why this bill is important:

    Of all the bills currently before the Maine Legislature, LD 1185 makes the most serious attempt at funding the actual construction of new broadband fiber networks in Maine.  Although the numbers it promises are small in relation to the overall problem, it could have a big impact when used in combination with local, federal and private funds.

    If you want to see a better broadband network and a brighter economic future for our state, please email or callyour legislators today and ask them to support LD-1063 and LD-1185.  If you’re not sure who your legislators are, you can find complete lists of Maine State Senators and Maine State Representatives online.

  • Bill to help communities develop plans to boost broadband infrastructure has backing

    A measure by Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon, would help Maine communities develop a robust broadband infrastructure to support economic growth.

    “Maine is competing in the global economy of the 21st century, and high-speed broadband networks are essential to making our state competitive,” said Gideon.  “By investing in our broadband infrastructure, we can create good-paying jobs statewide.”

    LD 1063 will help communities assess local needs and develop a plan to meet them by providing grant funding, technical assistance and the most up-to-date research and best practices in broadband technology.  The increased support will come through the ConnectME Authority, an existing agency whose mission is to increase access to broadband and help Mainers use it to enrich their communities and local economies.

    “Increased access to broadband is beneficial to all Mainers. From small start-up family businesses to large companies, businesses in every corner of Maine need reliable, high-speed internet in order to be successful. Our hospitals, particularly in the rural areas, need broadband access to function in today’s high-tech world. Expanded access to broadband is also essential for ensuring our students can succeed,” said Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Androscoggin, the lead co-sponsor of LD 1063.  “I’m confident that with thoughtful planning and investment that builds on already existing resources, Maine can have the broadband infrastructure that we need for today’s fast-paced, global society.”

    The lawmakers cited Rockport’s recent success in building a town-owned gigabit fiber optic network to bring high-speed broadband to its downtown businesses as an example of municipal investment in broadband infrastructure.  Other Maine cities, they noted, are also moving toward similar models.

    “About 80 percent of Maine households are underserved when it comes to adequate broadband.  Some do not have access to fast enough Internet – the kinds of speeds needed for video conferencing or uploading documents efficiently – and some have no Internet access at all,” said Gideon.  “By expanding broadband access to towns across the state, we can make significant progress in breaking down the barriers that limit economic development.”

    According to Google Director of Marketing Scott Levitan, 97 percent of American consumers search online for goods and services.  At the same time, 59 percent of small businesses in Maine do not have a website.

    Maine currently has a 1,100-mile statewide fiber optic network called the Three Ring Binder, which can be accessed by carriers and service providers locally to connect Mainers with broadband.  The network extends to western, northern and Downeast Maine, but many communities lack the infrastructure to utilize the Three Ring Binder.  LD 1063 would help more areas of the state plug in to this so-called “dark fiber” network.The bill was referred to the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, which will schedule a public hearing in the coming weeks.

    Gideon is serving her second term in the Maine House.  She represents Freeport and part of Pownal.