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Jun 22, 2023

Maine Drafts a Five-Year Broadband Action Plan

All 50 states are currently working on Five-Year Action Plans for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. As they release draft plans, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is sharing summaries focused on how states define their broadband goals and priorities.

Last week we took a look at Maine's vision for digital equity and its Digital Equity Plan. This week, we are breaking down what the state plans to do with its BEAD Program funding to achieve universal broadband for all Mainers through its Five-Year Action Plan. Together with a network of collaborators across the state, Maine is committed to a multi-year, multi-disciplinary approach, leveraging all necessary resources to bring broadband to all.

Infrastructure Deployment in Maine
The digital divide is leaving some Mainers further and further behind every day. For the approximately seven percent of Mainers who have no internet connection, a connected digital life does not exist except maybe in a local library, a friend’s house, or on a tiny mobile phone screen. Maine identifies the following barriers to universal broadband that the state must address first:

- Maine’s unique geography, demographics and current broadband infrastructure present a host of challenges when efficiently and inexpensively deploying new broadband infrastructure.
- The quality of internet connections causes frustration for Mainers across the board, whether because of a slow connection, a lack of capacity to support all the devices and uses, or periodic outages. The Maine Broadband Survey showed that 40% are dissatisfied with their connection.
- Baseline data is being updated and refined regularly, impacting the scale of the problem and available resources and bringing communication and process challenges.
- Community broadband planning in Maine has traditionally taken place at a municipal level, but for deployment at this scale to happen at a cost-effective and relatively rapid pace, efforts must be regionalized.
- Access to capital at scale is limited for public and private partners. Financing for public ownership at a regional scale is critical, but support and financing for utility districts and publicly owned efforts remain limited.
- Some elements of the broadband infrastructure deployment—such as the pole attachment process, permitting, insurance, and other regulations—require significant resources to navigate and will slow the overall process if not addressed.
- More than 3,400 new broadband workforce positions are needed to address the surge of investment, highlighting an increasing need to develop a talent pipeline to meet these needs.
- The cost of internet service continues to be a significant barrier to broadband adoption.
- A shortfall of critical digital skills support is a major barrier to allowing Mainers to leverage the internet to advance education and work goals or access other relevant resources online. There is widespread interest in and need for digital skill building, especially among older adults and other "covered populations."
- Access to devices and technical support to operate them is an ongoing issue. People are using friends, family, or coworkers for technical support. There are insufficient trusted and accessible sources for technical support in communities or awareness of existing supports. In our survey, just 5 percent went to a local institution for help, and more than a quarter simply gave up when they couldn’t fix their device.

Regulatory Barriers and Policy Recommendations
The Maine Connectivity Authority (MCA) identified several legislative and regulatory barriers to accelerated infrastructure deployment. Frequently mentioned among these were the issues of the need for long-term affordability (systemic changes or permanent subsidy programs like the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program or others), financing options for broadband projects (especially publicly owned models), pole attachment costs, complexity and challenges, permitting, rights of way access, service standards.

Given the surge of regulatory requirements across multiple federal funding programs combined with the integration of new data that will shape policy and practice, the pragmatic insights gained by MCA through the design, development and deployment of funding will be honed through the second half of 2023. Additional inputs to inform MCA’s policy and regulatory priorities include an analysis by the Maine Broadband Coalition, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Governors Association, and the Schools Libraries and Health Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, among others. Here are some of the emerging policy and regulatory priorities at this time.

- Maine should continue to encourage the federal government to fund and strengthen the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).
- Maine should also consider a complementary state-based affordability program to create stability and encourage more eligible Mainers to enroll.
- Maine could develop a policy to enforce higher standards for price and service level transparency from providers.
- Maine could adopt a Subscriber Bill of Rights, which would guarantee certain conditions for Maine’s broadband subscribers.
- Requiring long-term affordability conditions for grant recipients (10-20 years, longer than the current 3).

Digital Equity to Drive Adoption
- Maine needs an e-government and digital access strategy for all levels of the public sector.
- Campaign to improve performance of existing services: many internet subscribers could benefit from actions providers and individuals could take to improve existing service, particularly by upgrading outdated modems and Wi-Fi routers, repositioning equipment in the home to improve Wi-Fi connections, and adding mesh network extenders.
- Establish a tax incentive program for organizations to donate used equipment.
- Establish fees for disposing and recycling hazardous e-waste, with exemptions for usable and viable donated equipment.
- Maine needs a state digital equity policy including elements like ongoing tech support.
- Safety is a major concern, and Maine could strengthen and widen privacy laws and fund training for at-risk individuals in internet safety.
- Fund the promotion of internet safety techniques, laws, and courses.

- Regional scale solutions are critical. Maine could significantly accelerate deployment by enabling multi-municipal partnerships attracting new investment and enabling network diversification.
- Expand and codify standards for accountability. While MCA already facilitates a rigorous verification and validation process, a policy to ensure proposed service targets will be achieved prior to eligibility for new awards.
- Expand programming to provide line extensions in unserved areas through targeted negotiations with broadband providers and towns. (Building from MCA’s Reach Me Program).
- Plan, develop, and own a strategic expansion of open-access, middle-mile infrastructure to ensure internet transport resilience, last-mile service diversification, and alignment with economic development driver objectives.
- Maine could employ fixed wireless as a temporary solution by providing state contracts with private providers for interim periods that are in a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) pipeline but potentially years from getting connected.
- Strategically integrate non-wired solutions to compliment fiber to the premise (FTTx) enabling diverse service options for fixed wireless and improved mobile connectivity.
- Establish a focused initiative to align state goals to connect the unconnected as a complementary element of the Five Year Master Plan
- Utilize remaining American Rescue Plan Act funding (The Capital Projects Fund and Maine Jobs Recovery Program) to integrate with BEAD funding through a common data-driven target analysis, universal service requirement but prioritization of unserved locations increasingly factoring in digital equity objectives. The Connect The Ready Cohort 2 launched in the summer of 2023 and will serve the purpose of aligning with
BEAD funding parameters and requirements.
- As middle-mile funding drives planning and priorities, continued alignment with the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, Department of Transportation, Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Information Technology, Department of Economic and Community Development, Maine State Library Network, and others will be key to success.

Incentivizing Publicly Owned Infrastructure
- Ensure publicly-owned projects have equitable access to grant funds through a parallel process and funding stream that accommodates municipal governance timelines, budgeting, and regional utility development.
- Consider capitalization of the Municipal Gigabit Broadband Access Fund through state-appropriate funds to leverage regional universal projects that meet and exceed Maine’s broadband standard.
- Policies, partnerships and strategies to improve access to capital for Broadband Utility Districts (BUDs) that include a refinement and clarification around BUD eligibility for tax-exempt bond funding.
- Consider additional incentives for publicly-owned networks expanding for regional coverage of adjacent unserved areas to reinforce community-supported expansion and diversified service options in rural locations.

Policies to Address Barriers to Broadband Deployment
- Pole attachment processes (licensing, contracts, Make-Ready, data sharing) will need modification to accommodate the surge of activity anticipated through the next few years.
- Maine may pursue policy reforms to incentivize providers and contractors to train more workers through a program like the Dirigo Investment Zone Initiative.
- State-built infrastructure and transfer arrangements.
- Evaluate requirements for open-access dark fiber after an exclusivity period for the co-funding partner of publicly-subsidized networks.
- Support federal legislation to mitigate income tax liability for recipients of federal funding.

Maine's Strategies for Universal Broadband
1. Prioritize funding to maximize impact, balancing urgency, universality, and equity
Maine seeks to stretch funds to optimize the impact of investments. Maine will focus on balancing the dynamic tension of designing solutions for everyone while prioritizing those who are most disadvantaged.

- Apply a digital equity lens to infrastructure projects and other programs to prioritize investment impact through an enhanced broadband mapping and analysis platform to be known as the Connectivity Headquarters for Analysis Research and Transparency (CHART) including a multi-criteria decision-making framework.
- BEAD funding will be utilized and distributed by MCA to first deploy infrastructure to the approximately 42,000 unserved locations across the state, addressing affordable access for those with no connection. The next priority for these funds will be the 52,000 locations considered unserved by the state of Maine.
- Lead the Interagency Broadband Working Group to coordinate broadband implementation with state plans/strategies, including capital planning, climate resilience, affordable housing, economic development, transportation, workforce, education, etc.
- Establish a Connectivity Hubs Program in 2024-2026 to support education, workforce, and telehealth programming and public access to the internet, devices, and digital skills at community anchor institutions identified for maximum potential impact.

2. Proactively drive investments as a comprehensive portfolio
Maine will develop and implement a restructured deployment system to enable rolling funding applications and a managed flow of project development and technical assistance to allow for braided funding sources and an increased alignment of resources.

- The Connectivity Headquarters for Analysis Research and Transparency (CHART) will serve as a decision-making framework for how expanded criteria inform funding, priority areas and partnerships, such as looking at areas with high percentages of covered populations, homes without a device, or layering in other digital equity factors such as income, educational attainment, and/or gaps in programs and resources identified in the digital equity asset inventory as part of the evaluation for infrastructure investments.
- Build on Maine’s history of community-driven broadband solutions using the CHART to provide transparent data-driven decisions and prioritization and technical assistance to communities, so they will can pursue community broadband planning at a local or regional level.
- Facilitate ongoing dialogue and engagement with Internet Service Providers to assess and align opportunities for deployment to complement and maximize their private investment.
- Continue refining existing infrastructure programs such as Connect the Ready, Reach Me, and Jumpstart to enable diverse technologies and models to increase competition and options that lower costs for the projects and consumers.
- Establish a resource bank for technical assistance and shared services, including general technical assistance, data analysis, network design, legal and financial consulting and grant procurement.

3. Optimize Broadband Deployment
The state will decrease barriers to delivering broadband at scale and speed, braiding funding and leveraging resources. By identifying data and policy challenges to address these barriers, MCA can improve efficiency and reduce costs.

- Unlock access to complimentary capital, financing solutions and other resources to ensure the opportunity for a diverse and healthy ecosystem and various ownership models for projects of all types.
- Support public ownership models, including for municipal, regional and broadband utility districts, enabling diversification of ownership structures in Maine.
- Coordinate a multi-pronged approach to address structural, data and policy challenges to the utility pole process to improve efficiency and reduce costs.
- Enable workforce pathways for educational, training and employment opportunities to ensure Maine has the human capital needed to support this unprecedented influx of funding. Promote broadband career awareness & exploration by creating a Maine Broadband Career Hub and leveraging partnerships to create a talent pipeline.
- Propose and implement additional (potentially NTIA-funded) Middle Mile investments that will create much-needed backhaul infrastructure, as well as improve access to affordable last mile. MCA also plans additional CPF-funded middle-mile investments.

4. Expand and Enhance the Foundation for Digital Equity
MCA will ensure that all Mainers, especially the most disadvantaged, have access to and can use information and communications technologies by sustaining and growing that digital equity foundation.

- Formalize and ensure the continuity of the digital equity infrastructure in Maine by more than doubling NTIA’s Digital Equity investment by launching a $15 million Digital Equity Fund.
- Transform the Digital Equity Asset Inventory into an interactive online resource to provide information about digital inclusion programs and resources.
- Produce digital equity-focused events, such as an annual Digital Equity Workshop, to drive collaboration, support shared learning, monitor progress, and communicate impact.
- Act as a partner and convenor, providing structure to bring together the Digital Equity Taskforce, Regional and Tribal Broadband Partners, Interagency Broadband Working Group and others.
- Partner with the National Digital Equity Center (NDEC) to support a statewide cohort of digital navigators across organizations and agencies, hosting a central digital navigator training and sharing information and best practices.
- Support a Tribal Broadband Initiative to support connectivity and digital equity for the Tribes in Maine.

5. Focus on Affordability
Maine will improve the affordability of internet service so the high cost of reliable internet is no longer a significant barrier to adoption, ensuring that more Mainers are aware of the available support through initiatives like the Affordable Connectivity Program.

- Lead and expand the ACP4ME Campaign, which provides support statewide with materials and training for partners to conduct outreach and enrollment activities.
- Engage with our partners to explore best practices and other policy solutions, programs, and pilots that could provide support if the ACP is not funded beyond 2024.
- Work with the affordable housing community to research, launch, and fund an Affordable Housing -Connectivity Program, ensuring that the thousands of people living in affordable housing units in Maine have affordable access and the support they need to fully connect, including apartment Wi-Fi, digital skill training, affordable devices and technical support, and internet safety education.
- Identify and incentivize options for multiple services strategies for extremely high-cost unserved locations and underserved locations to increase competitive markets where possible.

6. Raise Awareness and Strengthen Feedback Loops
MCA will drive demand for services by understanding how people need and want to use the internet. MCA will collaborate with partners to design and launch statewide educational campaigns promoting workforce and training opportunities, internet safety, device refurbishment, and general awareness.

- Regular progress monitoring and data sharing will increase transparency and support communication of our collective progress.
- Launch an Internet Safety for ME Campaign, creating various tools to be employed by trusted partners and leveraging media and law enforcement engagement.
- Launch an Affordable Devices for ME Campaign encouraging and enabling device donation for refurbishment and redistribution to covered populations.
- Identify and create a series of video and photographic Digital Equity Stories illustrating the impact of the digital divide, examples of digital inclusion programs, and the impact of digital equity on people’s lives and communities.

Broadband & Maine's Other Priorities
The objectives of this plan will impact and interact with the goals of the State of Maine in several areas, including economic and workforce development, educational attainment, healthy aging, and improved access to telehealth and telemonitoring services. The state highlights the intersectional nature of its broadband strategy and its benefit to other state objectives.

Maine Wants to Hear From You
The Maine Connectivity Authority released its draft Broadband Action Plan on June 9, 2023. Public comments on Maine's draft plan can be submitted using this form until June 30, 2023. MCA will reflect on all that it has heard from individuals, communities and partners and revise the plan before submitting it to NTIA on August 1st.

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