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Charter-funded group campaigns against Maine municipal broadband, riling residents and ‘partners’

Charter Spectrum Wireless Service
John Raoux
/
AP
This Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, photo shows Charter Communications, Inc.'s Spectrum trucks in the parking lot at a Spectrum customer center in Orlando, Fla.

A group funded by Maine's largest internet service provider has successfully helped defeat municipal broadband projects in the tiny communities of Readfield and Southport.

However, some of the organization's partners, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, are questioning the group's electioneering tactics that have offended some residents.

Meanwhile, the president of a newly created broadband agency worries that the group's methods could hinder efforts to expand high-speed internet service.

Last week, as Southport residents debated at town meeting whether to torpedo a $2.1 million broadband project that voters initiated a year ago, 94-year-old Evelyn Sherman held up a glossy mailer distributed by a group calling itself the Alliance for Quality Broadband.

"I wonder where it's coming from. Can somebody here tonight tell us where this money is coming from? Are you trying to buy the votes?" Sherman said.

The mailer encouraged residents to kill the town's bid to create its own internet network and upgrade service to Southport's 600 residents..

Evelyn's daughter, Sarah Sherman, had seen similar ads paid for by the Alliance for Quality Broadband on Facebook.

When she searched to see who was behind it, she found a website listing a coalition of partners that includes conservative advocacy groups in several states, and curiously, the Boys and Girls Clubs in Tennessee.

"So that really was a red flag for me, that this organization really had no interest interfering in our small town decision," Sarah said.

At first, Sarah Sherman didn't realize that one of the AQB partners also includes Charter Communications, the multi-billion dollar telecom that owns Spectrum, Maine's largest internet service provider.

The company has previously engaged in campaigns to defeat municipal broadband projects that are designed to expand service to areas unserved by private providers because it's not profitable.

Spectrum is the only fiber-based internet service provider currently available in Southport — a monopoly status that would be challenged if the town proceeded with a $2.1 million effort to create its own network operated by Machias-based Axiom Technologies.

"At the meeting, there were two Spectrum representatives and they stood up and just verbally stated that they … had membership within this group," Sarah Sherman said. "But it was all very mysterious up until that point."

To some degree, it still is.

While mailers and locally-targeted digital ads by Alliance for Quality Broadband may have helped convince Southport and Readfield residents to ditch their municipal broadband proposals, a full accounting of its electioneering activities and funding sources is not possible because the vast majority of Maine towns do not require campaign finance reports by groups influencing local referendums.

AQB's campaign was also apparently unknown to some of its local partners.

"I wasn't aware of the flier, or the effort, or the content," said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, which is part of the Alliance for Quality Broadband member coalition. "I haven't even seen it."

"I do understand the concern that people would have," Connors added. "I hope they know that what the Alliance did … the State Chamber was not a part of, either financially, or in anyway, with the message, and in fact, learned of it when I read about it in the media."

Quincy Hentzel, head of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said in an email that she was also unaware that the group engaged in electioneering.

Her organization, and several other regional chambers in Maine, are listed as partners, arguably giving the group a veneer of legitimacy.

Connors acknowledged that the state chamber's position on broadband expansion is to avoid building duplicative systems where a provider currently exists — a message that the Alliance pushed in its campaign ads — but he said the state chamber doesn't outright oppose municipal broadband and respects local decision-making.

"That's an evaluation that a municipality will make and they can live by that," he said. "We're not second guessing that for a minute."

But some Southport residents did second guess the town's decision last year to greenlight the project, worrying that not enough people would sign up and that taxpayers would have to absorb upfront costs.

Ads by the Alliance for Quality Broadband played into those fears.

And last week, arguments to scuttle the project proved narrowly persuasive in a town vote. Now, Southport has to eat the roughly $600,000 it paid in upfront costs, while returning a $400,000 grant it received from the state's broadband program.

"It's complicating efforts to have communities get partial, if not false, information and limiting the options of what they want to pursue," said Andrew Butcher, president of the Maine Connectivity Authority.

Butcher is president of the Maine Connectivity Authority, a new quasi-governmental agency created last year by the legislature and backed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills to oversee an unprecedented influx of $550 million in state and federal money to expand and upgrade broadband in rural areas.

Butcher says municipal broadband is a small but crucial tool in Maine's expansion plans, which in some cases, rely on local engagement and partnerships to get the most out of the state's broadband funds.

"I'm very concerned about communities, or counties, thinking that the state's got enough resources to solve it for them," Butcher said.

That's why he worries that campaigns like the recent ones by the Alliance for Quality Broadband will discourage local participation.

Butcher also believes that the local chamber organizations listed as partners Alliance for Quality Broadband partners might not have been aware of the "purpose, intents and tactics" of the group when they signed on.

.{"I certainly can't represent them, but I will say that I have heard that they have been very alarmed and disconcerted by the type of campaign tactics that have been employed," he said.}

Maine Public Radio attempted to reach the Alliance for Quality Broadband via its website contact form and eventually received a response from BJ McCollister, who last year opened a Portland political consulting firm Resurgam Group after serving as a top advisor to Democratic legislators and campaigns.

(Disclosure: Resurgam Group is also a financial sponsor of Maine Public's Political Pulse podcast and newsletter).

McCollister said his firm was part of a larger team running campaigns on behalf of the alliance, but he did not identify other organizations, or address concerns from partners blindsided by its tactics.

He also would not disclose who made electioneering decisions or the group's funding sources, except to say that Charter Communications — which reported nearly $52 billion in earnings last year — had made an "initial contribution."

"AQB is advocating for solutions that address the digital divide comprehensively including by removing barriers to adoption," McCollister said. "Except in limited circumstances in rural areas where private broadband expansion is not an option, we think government owned networks are unlikely to be the best solution to getting more Americans connected."

A regional spokesperson for Charter Communications did not respond to a request for comment.