Last month, the Mills administration awarded $5.6 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to connect more than 700 students and teachers in rural Maine with high-speed internet service to support remote learning.
The ongoing public-private partnership, dubbed ConnectKidsNow!, involved seven internet service providers, 71 towns and a two-month window. It also provided a few lessons for how the state can best allocate the $15 million approved by Maine voters in July for broadband expansion throughout the state.
Because federal guidelines required the coronavirus relief money to be spent by the end of 2020, the application process for providers had to be simple and clear, said Nick Battista, chair of the ConnectME Authority and senior policy officer with the Island Institute, a Rockland-based economic development group involved with rural broadband initiatives.
That’s a good template for next month, when companies are likely to begin applying for a slice of the bond money.
ConnectME is a component of the Maine Department of Economic & Community Development tasked with making sure the state meets its broadband connectivity goals.
“This has been a huge push on the part of the private sector to make this happen,” said Battista, who called the project “one of the things I’m most excited about in broadband right now.”
Battista spoke in a webinar hosted by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. Dana Connors, chamber president, said the discussion was the first in a series of virtual forums that will include government, civic and industry leaders talking about the state’s broadband challenges in hopes of coalescing around “ways to create the environment necessary to help speed up the development of reliable, high-speed internet networks throughout Maine.”
In addition to Battista, Tuesday’s panelists included Bruce Williamson of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, Brian Langley of Bridge Academy, Lori Parham of AARP and Mike Chowaniec of Charter Communications.
Another lesson gleaned from the ongoing effort to connect more students and teachers is the issue of utility poles and the lines that attach to them. Maine has a few hundred thousand utility poles and is grappling with challenges associated with ownership, maintenance and how best to handle the need to move some lines to make room for others.
High-speed internet access most often requires fiber-optic cables. Although some are routed underground, most are strung from utility poles that also carry electrical wires and other equipment that is owned privately or publicly.
“The pole attachment of fiber has been one large and surprisingly complex barrier to getting fiber built out sooner,” said Williamson, the PUC commissioner. “Access to poles, and getting fiber on them, is a costly process.”
Williamson said his agency has been working on the issue since 2015. Under a “one-touch, make-ready” proposal adopted by a few other states, one company’s professional could move others’ gear on the pole to make space for wiring instead of having every company move its own gear.
If enacted, such a proposal could cut the cost of broadband expansion by 40 percent, Williamson said.
Chowaniec, vice president of Charter Communications, called the relationship between broadband providers and pole owners critically important. And not simply for creating space to add fiber but also for equitably sharing the cost of replacing poles that are on their last legs.
“To the extent we can facilitate efficient communication and efficient contractual relationship,” he said, “that’s going to speed up buildout and that’s going to avoid disputes.”
Battista, who said four different communications companies have wires on the poles near his house in Camden, agreed.