Jun 3, 2022

Competition and supply chain issues could stunt rural Maine’s broadband progress

Maine has funded projects that will provide high-speed internet to tens of thousands of homes that lack it now, but stiff competition for federal funding and economic problems may slow progress down.

Maine has funded projects that will provide high-speed internet to tens of thousands of homes that lack it now, but stiff competition for federal funding and economic problems may slow progress down.

Broadband is seen as a key economic need in rural areas, held up as a way to attract remote workers and ensure businesses are able to thrive in all corners of the state. Maine set an ambitious goal in 2020 to ensure 95 percent of the state has broadband service by 2025.

Interest in funding exploded early in the COVID-19, with Maine approving its first broadband expansion bond in 2020. Up to $500 million in total could come from state and federal sources. Supply chain problems, getting the workforce to build the projects and steep competition for funding as other states ramp up could slow down already-funded projects, officials said.

The state estimated 86,000 Mainers did not have access to high-speed internet prior to the pandemic. It has now funded connections for about 34,000 of them, said Peggy Schaffer, executive director of ConnectME. The state could tackle the rest through federal American Rescue Plan Act funding. Private funding, such as TDS Telecom’s plans to add 21,000 addresses in Somerset and Franklin counties, could also help reach that goal, she said.

Maine has targeted funding at communities with no access to internet speeds of less than 50 megabits per second for downloads and 10 for uploads. Projects that could be done sooner include Greenville, Dedham, Orland, Eastbrook, Long Island, Bristol and Alexander, she said, but the state has also funded projects that include the area between Rockwood and Jackman, the Rangeley Lake area, parts of Washington County and the Blue Hill peninsula.

“We are ready to launch this stuff,” she said. “The communities have been engaged in talking with providers, providers know that the communities want the service, they understand what the take rate is, everybody’s looking at the finances of it to make sure it all pays for itself.”

Any federal dollars will have to be paired with local spending while other states move to get funding that will be partially competitive. That will make competition even stiffer, said Andrew Butcher, the president of the Maine Connectivity Authority.

Getting the supplies needed to build the projects is also expected to be a challenge as communities look to increase connectivity all at once. Some providers bought materials ahead of time, anticipating a crunch. Butcher said his agency is looking to create a resource bank to ensure that does not happen.

Demand can be a challenge in itself. Projects can be costly and communities are faced with deciding whether to build and own networks or work with incumbent providers who would retain control over the system. In Hampden, companies TDS Telecom and Spectrum announced last October that they would expand coverage after a $4.5 million bond to build the town’s own network was floated. The bond measure was later defeated at the ballot box.

For Mainers who want it, the state is still looking to use its federal funding to keep its momentum up, Gov. Janet Mills said Thursday during a Portland Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

“We’re working hard on this challenge and we will keep working until every person in Maine who wants to connect to the internet can do so by the end of 2024,” Mills said. “That’s a promise.”