The new Maine Connectivity Authority will use of incoming Federal broadband funds to expand access to affordable broadband 

April 28, 2021

By Ramona du Houx

COVID-19 highlighted the need for accessible, affordable broadband. Throughout the pandemic federal and state government elected officials listened to heart-rendering concerns from educators, businesses, schools, healthcare providers, people in nursing homes, grandparents and families who couldn’t talk online to see their loved ones because of inadequate internet broadband connections. The lack of affordable and accessible broadband, especially in rural areas, was limiting and frustrating for far too many and exposed the inequities in the system.

“For over a year I couldn’t see my grandchildren. Of course we talked but knowing there was a way I could have reached out to them – to see them -on broadband made the situation harder. We pay for the service, but it always cuts out and every-time we tried to use it to connect with the grandchildren it failed. I’m really grateful tor our President, governor and legislature for promising to fix the problem,” said Sherry Van Winkle.

Legislation to establish the Maine Connectivity Authority, a new entity charged with achieving universal availability of high-speed broadband in Maine is making its way through the senate and house. The creation of the Authority comes as Maine is expected to receive as much as $129 million through the American Rescue Act Plan signed into law by President Biden last month that can be used for broadband expansion. The Maine Connectivity Authority, is sponsored by Senator Rick Bennett (R-Oxford) and co-sponsored by Representative Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham) and the other Co-Chairs of the Legislature’s Broadband Caucus, and promoted by Governor Mill’s office.

It adds another agency to work with the ConnectME program established by Governor John Baldacci. The main difference is that The Authority would be empowered to own physical broadband infrastructure, such as poles and wires, and hold equity in broadband projects. It would provide grants and loans and partner with the private sector and local communities to leverage investment and coordinate buildout of infrastructure. 

“Fully funded and ably led, the Maine Connectivity Authority may one day be seen as a giant leap for Maine-kind, connecting us to jobs, to learning, to health care, and to one other,” said Representative Seth Berry, who serves as co-chair of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. “Thanks to President Biden and Congress, to Governor Mills and Senator Bennett, today we glimpse a more connected and prosperous future for Maine.”

The Authority along with ConnectME positions Maine to take a more proactive approach to closing the digital divide in rural and hard-to-reach communities that will focus on meeting Maine’s current and future needs, rather than reacting in a piecemeal fashion with various private companies to construct a patchwork of infrastructure. 

“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,” said Governor Janet Mills. “My Administration has made expanding access to broadband a priority, securing the first state-level investment in more than a decade and bringing high-speed internet access to more families and students across Maine. Taking this step to develop the Maine Connectivity Authority puts us on the best path forward to use the American Rescue Plan funds to expand internet access, especially in rural Maine, and to speed up our economic recovery from the pandemic.” 

The Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee (ERC), charged with charting Maine’s economic recovery after the pandemic, urged the State to prioritize investment in affordable, high-speed broadband statewide to increase access to distance education, remote work, and telemedicine. 

The Authority under the legislation is charged with ensuring: 

  • that effective, accessible connectivity be universally available in the state;  
  • that there be secure, affordable, reliable, competitive and sustainable forward-looking infrastructure that can meet future needs;  
  • and that all residents, businesses and institutions in Maine be able to take full advantage of theeconomic, health, educational, and other opportunities available through connectivity services.  

The legislation creates a Board of Directors to govern the Authority, which will be comprised of seven members appointed to three-year terms. Four members will be appointed by the Governor, one by the Senate President, and by the Speaker of House. The Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development will also hold a seat. 

“High-speed broadband is crucial to Maine’s economic future. It will offer options for businesses to start or expand in rural areas,” said Heather Johnson, Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development. “As we look to grow our workforce and bring new people and new jobs to our state, stable funding provided by the American Rescue Plan allows us to optimize a model that aligns to leverage the private sector’s construction and growth planning. This new authority provides a stable ownership of the process of building out the infrastructure needed.” 

The legislation is scheduled for a public hearing tomorrow, Tuesday, April 27, 2021 before the Legislature’s Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology.  

The creation of the Authority is the next step forward in Governor Mills’ commitment to expanding access to affordable broadband in Maine,. Last year, the Governor secured the approval of a $15 million bond proposal for broadband. she also dedicated $5.6 million in CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Funds in partnership with private internet providers to buildout permanent internet infrastructure to more than 730 students across rural Maine.