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Mills Backs Bill To Expand Broadband Access In Rural Maine

rural broadband
Toby Talbot
Associated Press

Maine Gov. Janet Mills is backing a bipartisan bill that would expand broadband access in a state plagued by slow or nonexistent service.

The proposal would overhaul an obscure state agency created nearly 15 years ago and create a new one with the power to own and invest in rural broadband infrastructure projects that private providers have sworn off as unprofitable. The new agency would also be charged with making sure broadband access is affordable.

Expanding broadband access in Maine has frequently ended in a legislative stalemate over funding.

When voters last year approved a $15 million bond for broadband, it was the first public investment in more than a decade. But it was also far short of the $600 million the ConnectMaine Authority estimates it will cost to bring high-speed access to at least 95 percent of the state.

Now, after more than $120 million has been directed to the state via the Biden administration's American Rescue Plan, policymakers are framing public broadband investment as the key to rural communities' prosperity, and in some cases, their survival.

"The reality is that nobody will consider moving to a community without high-speed, reliable internet. The very survival of many towns across our state is at stake with the decisions we make," said Sen. Rick Bennett, a Republican from Oxford.

Bennett is the co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill that would create the Maine Connectivity Authority, a quasi-public agency that would have the ability to invest, subsidize and even own broadband projects.

During a press conference alongside Gov. Mills, Bennett described the new agency as one with the funding and power that its predecessor has never had.

The new agency would absorb the ConnectMaine Authority, a tiny department with a two-person staff and an operating budget described this way by Democratic co-sponsor Rep. Seth Berry, of Bowdowinham: "It's remarkable to me that until this year we had put less than a dollar per Mainer per year toward its funding."

The proposal is backed by Mills, who compared the new broadband initiative to the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, a federal program that used publicly-backed loans to expand electricity to rural areas through public-private partnerships.

Mills says the REA was born from the same problem confronting broadband access in rural states like Maine.

"The low population density of rural Maine and our funky geography and terrain has made it unprofitable for the private sector to expand their networks independently," Mills said.

Mills says the new broadband agency would leverage new state and federal money to either partner with private providers or rural communities to make investments that for-profit companies won't on their own.

So far, Mills says the lack of private investment has resulted in a patchwork of broadband infrastructure that disproportionately affects rural Mainers, as well as those who are lower income.

"The internet is our highway to the future, yet thousands of people and businesses in Maine still cannot access or afford high-speed internet," Mills said.

A recent report found that 85,000 locations across the state don't meet the federal standard for upload and download speeds, while the Pew Charitable Trusts recently found that 4 in 10 Mainers earning $30,000 or less don't have high-speed access at all.

Mills says the recent slug of federal funds from the Biden Administration will help, as will a brand-new agency to help coordinate and invest in broadband projects.

The Energy and Utilities Committee will hold a public hearing on the bill Tuesday.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.