Working together to solve Maine’s broadband challenges

The importance of State leadership in closing our digital divide

Nick Battista
Posted 2021-02-26

As we know all too well, high-speed internet is extremely important to daily life. The pandemic highlights how important broadband is to helping people work remotely, making sure students can attend school, keeping people connected with their families, and assuring that government can continue to function.

The State of Maine, through the ConnectMaine Authority, plays an important role in helping to close the digital divide. How the State actually does this is a question that regularly arises in broadband conversations. When friends or family ask me why this problem isn’t solved yet or why the State can’t solve it quickly, they know the answer probably won’t be a quick one.

If we have the time to go into some of the details, these are the facts I typically share:

  • Broadband is place-based infrastructure, it is built street by street, utility pole by utility pole. Your neighbor two streets over might have better or worse service than you do.
  • Your ability to have a good internet connect depends on a company seeing the business case for making a capital investment or being willing to receive some sort of subsidy. For a company to invest capital, they have to get some sort of reasonable return on it.
  • Seventy-five percent of Maine’s coastal communities have fewer than 3,500 people. Twenty-five percent of coastal communities have fewer than 750 people. Rural Maine, particularly outside of town centers, does not have the population density to support significant private investment in broadband infrastructure. As estimated by the Waypoints publication, one-third of road miles in coastal communities and over 40% of roads in Maine lack a strong business case for internet investment.
  • While Maine does have great internet service providers who have expanded their networks and built infrastructure in rural parts of the state, it is not reasonable to expect these private businesses alone to make the kinds of investments needed to move the state forward in a significant way.
  • Further, broadband is not a regulated utility—it is not like electricity or phone service where a monopoly is granted to a company with the understanding that in exchange for that monopoly, everybody in the area needs to be served. With broadband, nobody has to provide you with service.

Many communities are taking it upon themselves to understand the broadband challenges they face and how they could work to solve them. Some communities do this work on their own, some communities come together like Franklin County to do this work as a group. Having an interested and engaged community can serve as the basis for changing the economic model that makes it challenging at best for a provider to build out better infrastructure in many parts of the state.

The rural character of communities isn’t something that we can easily change to make a broadband investment more attractive but through community engagement, you can start to shift the underlying economics of a broadband project. Whether through changing the number of people who take service and thereby increasing the revenue potential for a project or by reducing the private capital outlay necessary to build a project through a capital subsidy, an engaged community can make a difference.

With broadband being identified in the Economic Recovery Committee, the Maine Won’t Wait Climate Action Plan, and the Maine Economic Development Strategy 2020-2029, it’s clear that improved broadband is an important part of Maine’s future. Given the importance of broadband to the future of the state, it shouldn’t be up to communities and providers alone to solve our broadband challenges.

This is where state leadership comes in. On February 23rd, Governor Mills used her State of the Budget speech to highlight this critical role and propose a $30,000,000 broadband bond to connect unserved households to high-quality internet infrastructure. This is in addition to the $6,400,000 awarded in November to build broadband infrastructure that connects students and educators who struggled to participate in remote school options. There is another $2,000,000 to support broadband connectivity coming this year as part of the benefit package for the New England Clean Energy Connect project. And of course, last summer the $15 million broadband bond showed how critical broadband is to all Mainers with 75% of voters, or over 230,000 Mainers, saying yes to better internet.

In case you are curious, “unserved” in Maine means that your internet today is worse than the internet I had growing up in Falmouth in the late 1990s. These are the rural communities that will be benefit from State investment in broadband infrastructure.

As the broadband authority tasked with connecting almost all Mainers, this is where ConnectMaine comes in. ConnectMaine is the entity through which these funds flow and the entity charged with making decisions about to distribute these funds. ConnectMaine uses a competitive grant process to distribute these funds and its grant programs encourage providers and communities to work together. Supporting various forms of public private partnerships that allow for connectivity to expand beyond what the market would otherwise serve is at the core of what ConnectMaine does. This work allows ConnectMaine to stretch limited state funds to help bring connectivity to all Mainers.

These are all important steps and very helpful funding, but connecting the 83,000 or more households still unserved requires a more significant state investment as well as additional capital from the private sector, municipalities, and the philanthropic community.

All of us involved in the broadband conversation have a lot of work to do. Strong state leadership and funding makes this work easier.

Since 2015, the Island Institute has supported 81 coastal and island communities, and several communities further inland, as we know the solution to broadband hinges on a statewide effort. Along with our community-driven broadband planning process and guide, we provide support to communities in our areas through planning grants and capacity assistance. We also participate in state broadband discussions through our role on the Maine Broadband Coalition and also through Nick’s appointment as Chair of the ConnectMaine Authority Board.