The USDA ReConnect Program is a source of government funds that can be allocated to broadband projects all across rural U.S. The primary purpose of the ReConnect Program is to “fund the construction or the improvement of buildings, land, and other facilities that are required to provide broadband service”. ReConnect funding comes in the form of grants, loans, or a combination of the two. They give the potential to cover the majority of expenses for infrastructure projects, but the process of applying involves more time, effort, and expertise than a small town usually has readily available. Several rural communities in Maine, however, have proven that—with enough willpower and coordination—it is possible to fill out the application. Furthermore, they’ve proven that it is possible to be awarded large sums of money which take a massive burden off of a community’s tax base. On January 30, 2020, the USDA publicly announced the coastal and island Maine municipalities that have been awarded funds as part of the first round of ReConnect funding: Roque Bluffs, Monhegan, and Arrowsic.
Key Grant Information (2020 – visit the official USDA ReConnect Page to ensure up-to-date information)
How much can one apply for?
- For grants– up to $25,000,000 can be requested in a single application.
- For loans– up to $50,000,000.
- For 50% loan 50% grant– up to a combined $50,000,000.
Who can apply?
Applicants to the USDA ReConnect program must be in a rural municipality, which the USDA classifies as having 20,000 or fewer inhabitants and does not border a municipality with greater than 50,000 inhabitants. Additionally, at least 90% of residents must have insufficient access to the internet—10mbps download / 1mbps upload or slower.
What is the status of the ReConnect Program?
After a successful pilot round, the ReConnect Program opens round two on January 31, 2020 and closes March 16, 2020. A third round of funding has been approved for an early 2021 application window.
What are the conditions?
The network proposed to be built with the grant funds must provide at least 25 mbps/ 3mbps (This is the FCC’s definition of broadband).
There is also the requirement that 25% of the grant must be funded by a separate contribution—a source other than the USDA (e.g. funding from the town, other grants, or philanthropic contribution).
What are the criteria?
The grant awardees are selected based on a point system. Points are awarded for: rurality, farms served, quality of service, the amount of businesses, healthcare centers, and educational facilities served, and more.
One of the 2020 awardees, Roque Bluffs applied for the grant because of their historical inability to acquire adequate internet connectivity. Located at the tip of a peninsula south of Machias, and with a small population (292 residents as of 2017), Roque Bluffs has never been an attractive business endeavor for an internet service provider. As of 2020, service is offered by a handful of providers at a variety of speeds. On the northern two miles of the main road to Machias (including a portion of one side road), there has been reportedly satisfactory service provided by Spectrum, but the service does not extend to the roads branching off. Only about 40 homes have access to Spectrum’s service. Consolidated offers internet that peaks at 10 mbps / 1 mbps. Axiom’s wireless service has also been available, but they aren’t advancing their wireless options, and service through that system will never improve. Furthermore, most options are limited by data caps and inconsistency. The town colloquially refers to the pre-buildout internet as “The Intermittent Internet”.
Former First Selectman of 19 years and member of the town’s broadband working group, Lisa Hanscom is a native to Roque Bluffs, and she once assumed that her town would never achieve the internet connectivity that non-rural municipalities have access to. She was resigned to the limitations that she’d encountered. In recent years, however, it became clear that action was necessary. There had been too many instances of Roque Bluffs being set back because of the lack of broadband. Karen Miller, another member of the broadband working group and now first selectman, had similar sentiments. Her frustration snowballed as she was unable to sign up for online classes and couldn’t register the town’s chapel with the Secretary of State through their online forms. On top of this, complaints became increasingly common from parents who had to drive their children to Machias to do their online homework, and there were residents who had moved to Roque Bluffs only to quickly return to where they came from because they required better service to work remotely or achieve the quality of life they were seeking.
Action, however, proved to be challenging. Contacting the ISPs resulted in stalemates until Axiom Technologies, their incumbent wireless provider, referred the town of Roque Bluffs to the different broadband funding options that are available to rural Maine.
This was how Karen and Lisa ended up sitting down with Mark Oullette of Axiom and Stephenie MacLagan of the Island Institute to discuss what options the community could pursue.
Listen to Lisa and Karen discuss the frustrations associated with their lack of broadband connectivity and the steps they took to instigate action…
The broadband working group accelerated its efforts and mustered support with door-to-door surveys and a series of public meetings held at different times of the day to accommodate a variety of people’s schedule. By September 2018, the town allocated $20,000 to match an Island Institute broadband planning grant that would cover the working group’s efforts to survey and engage the community leading up to the ReConnect Program’s application window. In May 2019, there was a special town meeting to vote on funding the million-dollar project and bolster their commitment to the ReConnect grant application. The special town vote had the highest attendance of any Roque Bluffs town meeting on record with 110 attendees (non-residents included). If the town won the grant, the town would fund 25% of the project (as required by the USDA). If the town did not win the grant, the town would still support finding a way to fund the whole project.. Under these conditions, the warrant article passed with a 63-27 vote. This success was largely attributed to the persistence of the working group’s community engagement practices and information sharing throughout their process.
With the funding approved, the Roque Bluffs broadband working group needed to move quickly to complete the grant application. The onerous application process called for several parties to work together weekly, if not daily, to ensure a strong application was submitted. There were several roadblocks along the way—the ownership model chosen through a public-private partnership (town owned infrastructure with ISP providing operation) was hard to articulate in the application. The application is not designed for municipalities to complete, and often requires more staff time than rural communities have. The application is more user-friendly for utilities or co-ops that already have projects or design components at hand.
For example, there were questions asking for profit projections, and that wasn’t directly applicable to Roque Bluffs. The solution according to Lisa and Karen was to leverage whatever resources were available, namely, the brains one has access to. The CEO of Axiom, Mark Ouellette provided his technical expertise, the Island Institute provided grant support and networked with state representative and USDA leaders, and the town of Roque Bluffs was lucky enough to have in their midst a diligent town auditor and an astrophysicist with both grant writing experience and enthusiasm for broadband. Roque Bluffs is a key example of how a community should leverage every resource available to achieve success.
On January 30, 2020, the USDA ReConnect Program publicly announced four Maine awardees; Roque Bluffs’ broadband project was one of the winners of approximately 1 million dollars. Along with a $50,000 Connect Maine Authority infrastructure grant and a town contribution of over $200,000 through bank financing, the project is funded in full. No one knows what challenges are ahead in the buildout process, but Lisa and Karen are optimistic that broadband connectivity will allow their town to keep up as the world advances technologically.
By meeting the broadband challenge of today, Roque Bluffs is building capacity and leadership to prepare for future challenges the town may face:
- Roque Bluffs received another Island Institute Broadband Planning Grant to help with costs associated with the administration of the grant funds and project management.
- Digital literacy classes will be provided for free to enable Roque Bluffs residents to utilize broadband to its fullest potential.
- The working group dissolved, and a new broadband committee was created to oversee the project. Members include town selectmen, community members, and an Axiom Technologies representative.
- Roque Bluffs will ensure the town is equipped with current technology and accountant services to ensure all grant tracking and deliverables are met.
- Axiom Technologies and Roque Bluffs will begin the make ready process (6-9 months) for all poles within the design area to be prepared for project start in spring 2020.
Cliff Island, the last stop on Portland’s Casco Bay Ferry, has historically suffered from slow internet speeds. As the 21st century has progressed, Americans have come to expect high-speed, reliable internet to be as accessible as running water or electricity. Because of this trend, Cliff Islanders began to question whether they could feasibly bring broadband to their island community.
Residents, both seasonal and year-round, were tired of having to bring their laptops to the town square (which consists of the community hall, the ferry landing, the general store, and a tennis court) in order to acquire internet remotely close to the speeds they needed. Cliff Islanders did achieve their island broadband aspirations, and a success like this can only happen when there is a number of factors at play; namely: hard work on the part of the community, good luck, and financial support.
In the case of Cliff Island, those three ingredients were present, but so were challenges. In the end, Cliff Island ended up with a successful buildout using a private funding model to solve the dilemma of its capital expenditure—in other words residents privately covered the upfront cost that was necessary to fund the infrastructure. CI Fiber, a local LLC founded for the purpose of fundraising and owning the broadband infrastructure, productively collaborated with other organizations to bring the project to fruition.
One of the biggest barriers in the process was the fact that Cliff Island is a part of the city of Portland—unlike other Casco Bay Islands that are incorporated as their own municipalities. Being a part of the city prevented them from utilizing some of the grants available to rural communities seeking broadband access. On paper, Cliff Island is part of the most urban city in the state, making them very low priority when compared to the other communities that may apply for grants through the ConnectME Authority or USDA grant programs. Not only did their status as a part of Portland prevent them from accessing state or federal money, but it also prevented them from deciding whether or not their tax money could be spent on broadband infrastructure. While other rural towns can make tax allocation decisions through a vote, Cliff Island did not have that ability. Additionally, Cliff Islanders needed to work with the City of Portland through its permitting processes, which was an added complication.
Another challenge is community buy-in. Without community buy-in, the project could not have been funded, and not enough shares of CI fiber would have been sold. Cliff Island overcame that challenge by constantly keeping the community informed.
“I think a key thing is to continue to have community meetings. Keep the community involved throughout. I think that’s where the buy in came from. We made the process transparent.”
- Cheryl Crowley, Sustainable Cliff Island
Keeping the community in the loop throughout the entire community-driven broadband process was key to having a high take rate. The original goal was to have 60 homes on the island sign up for the service, and by the time it went live, there were 80 homes on board.
The Cliff Island broadband project was also able to leverage its resources to tie in other community projects. In recent history, there hasn’t been an official Cliff Island health center.
Concurrent to this project, an addition was planned for and built onto the community center to create a space dedicated to serve as a community health clinic. Funding was voted for and provided by the Cliff Island Association for this purpose. It was identified that a small separate room could be set aside for broadband infrastructure needs that included a control room for electronics. In addition to this space, CI Fiber was granted access to the roof to install a pole-mounted broadband microwave radio to access the signal from Portland. A backup generator was also installed as part of the construction to provide power to this community center during power outages. This combined funding helped bring down the cost for CI Fiber since the construction was implemented for multiple purposes.
- With infrastructure funded and owned by CI Fiber, and with service through Axiom Technologies, Cliff Island was able to attain service that reaches broadband speeds.
- 80 homes on Cliff Island are signed up through Axiom’s service. 20 of these homes are occupied year-round. Because of this take rate, CI Fiber shareholders will eventually have their investments paid back.
- The signal is transmitted from a microwave tower on top of One City Center in Portland to a tower on top of the Cliff Island community hall.
- The infrastructure will last for at least 20 years.
As recent as the mid 2000s, the only way to get internet on the Cranberry Isles was by visiting the school or the library. It wasn’t until 2007, that Redzone brought internet out to the rest of the island, and the service didn’t come anywhere close to achieving broadband speeds. In fact, on Little Cranberry Isle (Islesford) the speeds were less than 1mbps download / 1mbps upload. Needless to say, the Cranberry Isles found themselves behind the rest of the country when it came to attaining high-speed internet service. Without a good economic case, ISPs were never going to bring broadband to the islands on their own, so the community took action and solved the problem by seeking their own funding strategy based on grants—with a fallback plan of funding the infrastructure with the tax base.
Amy Palmer, the bookkeeper for the Cranberry Isles Fishermen’s Co-op, said that she knew something had to change when she found herself paying a fisherman from the
mainland for his catch. He asked her why she had to give him a written check, and why couldn’t she just electronically transfer his payment like the other co-ops do?
Jim Fortune, who does administrative work for the town and played a major role in the logistical process that brought broadband to the islands, recalled that people had tried settling on the Cranberry Isles in the past but found themselves unable to thrive due to inadequate internet speeds which don’t allow for viable telecommuting.
The Cranberry Isles began the community driven broadband process by forming a working group and communicating with organizations like the Island Institute, and even elected representatives in Washington D.C. to help garner support for their cause. By proving that their incumbent provider was insufficient and by issuing a targeted Request for Proposals, the broadband working group was able to attract the attention of a handful of ISPs. Axiom Technologies, one of the few respondents, took on the project as they were the only entity that confirmed they could achieve a fiber-to-the-premise system.
The broadband infrastructure would have cost the municipality 1.3 million dollars, which would have meant about a 10% increase on taxes. The solution that the broadband working group sought to achieve was to have the funding come from both state and federal grants. The catch was that in order to acquire all of that grant money, they needed to vow to fund the project as a community even if they did not win the grant. This meant that the community was facing a risk—they would either receive the funding and have their taxes remain the same, or fail to receive funding and face the 10% increase in taxes.
This ultimatum made it crucial for the broadband working group to educate the community about why this project needed to be accomplished with or without grant funding. They held meetings that attendees could attend via conference call to allow seasonal residents to give their input from their winter homes. They educated the public about how broadband would allow the Cranberry Isles to remain a robust community—that broadband would strengthen businesses, attract new families, and allow the island school to thrive. While there was some backlash from outspoken opponents to the investment, the overwhelming majority of the community voted to pass the funding at a town meeting in March of 2017. The broadband working group then moved forward with their grant applications. Through the Maine state grant, ConnectME, they were aiming to fund 9% of their municipally owned infrastructure, but the bulk of the funding would come from the USDA’s Community Connects grant. The town hired a grant writer to complete the USDA grant by applying for an Island Institute Broadband Planning Grant.
It would be several months before they would find out if they won the grant funding they applied for, but because Islesford was about to lose its internet service entirely, the town moved quickly on getting Axiom’s service implemented. Planning took place all spring and summer, and construction began in October 2017. It was in November that Jim Fortune got word that they had not won the USDA grant. He was disappointed, the community was disappointed, and there was some dissention coming from the community. However, they knew the risk they had taken, and as a whole they were resigned and still satisfied that high-speed internet was on its way.
“When the people sat down at the town meeting in March 2017, they knew that the grant wasn’t guaranteed. If it didn’t happen, we were prepared to pay for this ourselves.”
-Jim Fortune, Cranberry Isles broadband working group member and town administrator
Weeks later, in an ultimate moment of reversal, Jim Fortune got an email which informed him that the Cranberry Isles had—in fact—won the grant. The tax base wasn’t going to be so heavily impacted after all.
The USDA chooses applicants based on their rurality. Cranberry Isles ranked extremely rural due to having a population density of fewer than six people per square mile. Applicants are also chosen based on necessity. The USDA requires that applicants receive speeds slower than 10mbps download /1mbps upload, and the Cranberry Isles were being served speeds that were even slower than 1mbps download/1mbps upload.
“Our mission is to build prosperity in rural communities and when we look at the pieces, we need to create quality of life and economic opportunity. Infrastructure is at the core of that… nothing is more central to that than access to highspeed internet.”
-Former Assistant to the Secretary of USDA for Rural Development, Anne Hazlett at a ribbon cutting event during the Summer of 2018
Grants can be a risk. The more serious your community is about following through with a project, the more likely it is to receive grant funding. Community buy-in is essential to any community pursuing broadband.
The Cranberry Isles found themselves returning to their grant applications as their engineering plans changed. Certain locations of infrastructure needed to be moved, and environmental impact studies needed to be reassessed.
- The Cranberry Isles have a system in place that allows its residents to sign up for broadband service through Axiom.
- The infrastructure is owned by municipality and operated by Axiom. An undersea cable brings the signal to Great Cranberry Isle, and microwave towers bring the connection to the other islands.
- 45% of the residents on the Cranberry Isles are signed up for the service.