Broadband providers have failed to reach all Maine homes. Now they’re fighting towns trying to do it themselves
As the federal government continues to send millions of dollars to Maine and other states to expand high-speed internet service, a debate is emerging over how best to build out networks in rural communities.
Some towns are considering municipal-run networks that would reach residents who haven’t had access. But in some cases, they're encountering opposition funded by the same big internet service providers that have long refused to expand their networks.
Turnout was so high at a special town meeting in Leeds last week that town officials had to pause and relocate from the small town office on Rt. 106 to the local firehouse. Seventy residents turned out to weigh in on two hot-button issues: a new tax district for a solar project and the creation of a town-run broadband network paid for through a $2.2 million bond.
Using an upturned wooden cable reel as a lectern, moderator Charlie Dingman physically divided the crowd between residents and non-residents, the first hint that officials here were being extra vigilant about following the rules.
"I think this is the largest town meeting we've had in a very long time," Dingman said, "which is great, but it requires us to be a little more attentive to some of the rules of procedure."
Some town officials also suspected that the meeting was being closely monitored by Spectrum, the town's sole broadband provider and potential competitor to the bond proposal that would provide highspeed internet to roughly 330 unserved households while giving those with slower DSL service a chance to upgrade.
The Leeds broadband proposal sought a slice of the federal funds that have been flowing into the state since last year by leveraging a commitment from voters to borrow money to extend highspeed fiber to households who can't get it, or that were unwilling to pay the thousands of dollars Spectrum, the only local provider, would charge them.
Instead, the town hoped to hire a different provider, Axiom Technologies of Machias, to build the physical infrastructure and then the town would handle the monthly billing, which it would then use to pay back the bond.
And some town officials mistakenly believed that a Maine Public Radio reporter covering the event was working for someone else. Joe McLean is a civil engineer and volunteer on the Leeds Broadband Committee
"There was actually some belief that you may have been working — not knowing necessarily who you were — that you may have been recording the conversation on behalf of Maine Civic Action to try to come back later on and challenge our own process here," McLean said in an interview after the meeting.
Maine Civic Action was the name on the glossy pamphlets that many Leeds residents received a few days before town meeting.
It urged them to vote down the broadband proposal, framing it as a government-run boondoggle that would lead to higher taxes and questionable service.
McLean says town officials suspected that the pamphlets were linked to the broadband provider Spectrum, owned by Charter Communications, which has 31 million customers in 41 states, with revenues of nearly $50 billion last year.
"There's little precedent for this on any other town issue. Very small town. And so to have the expense of a color, double-sided pamphlet being hand-delivered to people's homes was surprising for a lot of people," McLean said.
Mclean says he was aware that Maine Civic Action had also run Facebook ads and distributed pamphlets in the town of Hampden this fall when residents there considered a $4.5 million bond to create their own broadband network to reach unserved residents.
"It's hard to understand how this could be funded if it wasn't for backing of someone like Spectrum or one of the incumbent providers," he said.
McLean said he confronted Spectrum's government affairs liaison Melinda Kinney about the pamphlets and that she denied that the company had any involvement.
Maine Public attempted to contact Kinney, but instead received a statement from Charter's regional spokeswoman Lara Pritchard acknowledging that the company had provided funding to the Maine Policy Institute, the Portland-based conservative advocacy group that created Maine Civic Action.
She framed its support as an example of Charter's "long-term commitments to improving the communities" it serves.
"These commitments are evident in our support for organizations like the Maine Policy Institute and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce as well as community organizations like the National Digital Equity Center and our sponsorship of Girls’ Day at the state house," Pritchard wrote.
"We also offer low-cost broadband service to eligible households and invest billions of dollars each year to continue to extend our network and expand connectivity from coast to coast each year, as we are currently doing in Etna, Newburgh and Swanville.”
She added that Charter and Spectrum bid on the Leeds proposal — a bid that so far has not won the support of town officials, some of whom viewed it as further solidifying the provider's virtual monopoly.
Pritchard did not respond to follow-up questions about whether Charter's financial support was specifically designed to fund Maine Civic Action's campaign against municipal broadband initiatives like the one in Leeds.
But Jacob Posik, a spokesman for the Maine Policy Institute commenting on behalf of Maine Civic Action, said the group has fought municipal broadband proposals that overpromise and underdeliver.
"Really, primarily our concern is to make sure taxpayers don't get a bad deal and to prevent the government from stepping in and building a parallel network service to one that already exists," Posik said.
Posik says it's risky for local governments to provide high-speed internet because the technology could be outdated before towns finish paying to install fiber to rural households.
"We want people to think more long-term … more big-picture than rushing into these agreements at the local level, which taxpayers could be potentially paying for decades down the road, in addition to the initial borrowing required to get these services up and running," he said.
In some cases, the argument that municipalities should not create their own broadband networks has been persuasive.
Earlier this month, residents in Hampden defeated the $4.5 million broadband bond after opponents — including people identifying as employees of private internet service providers — argued against it during public information sessions.
"Anytime that I hear government and towns, or state, getting involved in the utility business, I get alarmed," one Hampden resident said in September.
Another municipal broadband initiative in the town of China was also rejected by voters.
Back at the Leeds town meeting, broadband committeeman Joe McLean tried to explain why the town's broadband proposal is necessary.
"With phone company and the power company, they're required to get you service of last resort by the PUC (Public Utilities Commission). That doesn't exist with the internet. And so these internet companies have been able to just go into the most dense locations where it's most profitable for them, give them service and exclude whoever they feel like excluding," he said.
McLean went on to explain how the broadband bond would enhance the town's chances of securing some of the federal funds flowing into Maine, including $100 million in the infrastructure bill signed this week by President Joe Biden.
Selectman Dwight Buckley, who spoke just twice during the nearly three-hour meeting, weighed in just before the vote.
"Personally I'm going to tell you how I feel. I don't like that the fact that the town is getting involved in owning a business," he said.
But, he added, “This gives us the opportunity to go ahead and see what we can get for money for grants. If we wait for April, then like Joe says, we're behind," he said.}
The broadband bond passed overwhelmingly .
McLean says the vote is just one hurdle and that more opposition from Charter Communications may await, but he says if municipalities don’t push for expanded broadband coverage, no one else will.
"And if we try to let these private companies continue on the path for the last several decades, we're destined for poor service.”
It's an argument certain to play out again in the months ahead as rural communities make their bids for access to high-speed internet.