Jul 20, 2022

New agency pitches $150 million to stretch broadband across Maine

The Maine Connectivity Authority has a goal to offer every home and business in Maine a high-speed internet connection by 2024.

Maine’s new broadband internet agency has a bucket of cash and a goal of investing enough to give every state resident high-speed access within two years.

The Maine Connectivity Authority this month released a strategy called All-In to deliver $150 million in grants and incentives to plan and get broadband internet to underserved areas of the state.

The agency, formed last year by the Legislature, will oversee a massive utility investment sometimes compared to rural electrification in the 1930s.

“What the Maine Connectivity Authority committed to was to get money out on the street as quickly as possible,” said President Andrew Butcher in an interview. “The most exciting thing is that this is an opportunity to build the infrastructure of the future.”

The authority intends to use nearly half its available funding – $70 million – to bring infrastructure, mostly fiber optic cable, into areas where expansion plans and partnerships already exist, Butcher said.

Another $30 million will provide technical, planning and data analysis assistance to communities at earlier stages of broadband planning. And $30 million more will be set aside for what is known as “middle-mile” construction – bridging gaps between internet networks and rural, unconnected communities.

A final $20 million will be paid to internet service providers to incentivize “last mile” service – getting existing broadband just a little farther up the road to individual homes and businesses. Connecting that last mile is a challenge because making the physical investment for just one or two more customers doesn’t make financial sense for internet providers.

“Their neighbors have it, but there is not an economic case for service providers to deliver it to their home,” Butcher said.

“There is really something in here for everyone, and all solutions are on the table,” he said.

It is too early to tell whether the agency’s ambitious goals will be met. Rising inflation, supply chain disruptions and labor challenges could shrink the reach of the federal funding.

Still, Maine expects to receive between $100 million and $300 million more for broadband from last year’s congressional infrastructure bill, and the authority will be responsible for putting that money to use.

“Maine now has the agency to be able to oversee its digital infrastructure the way we fund the rest of our infrastructure,” Butcher said.

The authority’s first public outreach event will be held virtually Thursday at 12:30 p.m. Go to the agency’s website to register.