Nov 14, 2023
It Takes All Kinds: Maine’s Diverse Broadband Programs
Check out funding resources on the webpages for Maine Connectivity Authority and you’ll find multiple funding programs, each with its own set of rules. Telecompetitor/ Broadband Nation talked with Brian Allenby, MCA’s program operations and communications director, about these programs and what the state has achieved or hopes to achieve for each one.
As Allenby noted, MCA’s experiences with these programs should help the agency prepare for administering the $272 million in BEAD rural broadband funding that is allotted for the state, which we also discussed.
Connect the Ready
Maine’s biggest funding program is Connect the Ready, which is open to public/private partnerships, such as the ones that Consolidated has with the Greater East Grand Economic Council and with the town of Skowhegan, or the partnership between TDS and the town of Swan’s Island.
In January, MCA awarded $35 million through the Connect the Ready program to cover some of the costs of deploying broadband to unserved rural areas. An additional $20 million toward project costs will come from private sources.
In Connect The Ready’s second cohort, MCA has received 17 applications for $57 million in funding, about $20 million of which has been allocated to date. Grant rankings are based on a weighted cost benefit score that considers the overall efficiency of deploying funding to the project, affordability, speed of deployment and the relative digital equity score for each area, said Allenby.
Jumpstart Community Initiative
Launched in 2022, MCA’s Jumpstart Community Initiative provided funding for fixed wireless deployments.
Three quite different projects won funding:
Outer Reach Broadband won $500,000 for deployments that will use Tarana Wireless equipment and will transition to fiber broadband
UScellular won $369,000 to deploy 5G radio equipment that will use the company’s low-band spectrum
Wireless Partners won $180,000 for deployments using LTE-A technology in the CBRS spectrum band
MCA has learned a great deal from its Jumpstart projects, including where to place towers along the Canadian border, as Canada uses different wireless frequencies than the U.S., Allenby explained. In addition, MCA learned lessons about using backhaul fiber to fixed wireless towers to help begin building fiber-to-the-home networks concentric to the towers,
Reach Me and More
MCA’s Reach Me program is designed to enable incumbent service providers to extend high-speed broadband to pockets in their networks that would likely remain unserved due to a lack of density.
In April, MCA awarded $20 million in Reach Me funding to nine incumbent providers. The biggest winner – Charter – subsequently declined the $6.9 million it had been awarded due to a disagreement involving the Affordable Connectivity Program, but later offered a compromise.
Maine also has two programs that provide funding to help awardees plan for broadband deployments. These programs are the Get Ready Community Support program and the Regional & Tribal Broadband Partners program.
Ready For BEAD
Maine’s $272 million in BEAD funding will likely be enough to cover the state’s unserved and underserved areas, said Allenby. Part of that equation will involve looking at the extremely high cost per location threshold and the use of alternative technologies, he added.
“When we get to those last one to three percent of locations in Maine, we are literally talking about building out five miles of fiber to get to one home,” he said.
To that end, MCA continues to try to analyze and better understand where there are clusters of homes that will be much easier to serve via fiber versus those where alternatives such as fixed wireless would be a better fit, explained Allenby.
Allenby also noted that Maine was able to maximize its BEAD allocation by submitting a large number of availability challenges to the FCC.
“That changed the picture for us,” Allenby said.
He also noted that getting high-speed internet to everyone in Maine will be a little easier now that three providers in the state have accepted Enhanced ACAM funding.
“We are estimating that will take 12,000 unserved and underserved locations off the map for us,” said Allenby. “Every little bit helps. We are hopeful that we can meet the requirements of the BEAD program, but I don’t think we will have significant funding remaining.”
MCA currently has a nearly full staff of 19 full-time employees in place. The agency has submitted its BEAD Volume 1 and 2 Initial Proposals, which will be submitted in December after a comment period is completed. The state’s five-year action plan and its digital equity plan have also been submitted to the NTIA.
As Allenby noted, MCA’s responsibilities also extend beyond broadband deployments.
“This work is going to continue well into the future, especially as we look at the ongoing digital equity and inclusion work that needs to be done and ensuring that folks who have access to service can fully use it,” he said.
Additional information about Maine broadband, including links to state resources and Telecompetitor coverage, can be found on the Broadband Nation page for the state.