Other Midcoast municipalities tentatively move toward joining

Camden and Rockport progress toward new public utility, the Midcoast Internet Development Corporation

Working in concert with federal, state push for national broadband upgrade
Fri, 06/18/2021 - 8:45am

    With an “ought to pass” on a state bill establishing the Maine Connectivity Authority, and flush with an anticipated $129 million in nationwide funding, Camden and Rockport are wasting no time in establishing the voter-approved Midcoast Internet Development Corporation to take advantage of accessible funding and help to establish broadband public utilities.

    In support of, and right behind them, the federal government has mapped the United States, noting where high-speed internet is strong, and the corresponding pockets where it is lacking.  (See the national map here).

    The map, said the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, in a June 17 news release,  is a Broadband Need tool that collects, “for the first time, data from both public and private sources. It contains data aggregated at the county, census tract, and census block level from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Federal Communications Commission , M-Lab, Ookla and Microsoft. Speed-test data provided by M-Lab and Ookla help to illustrate the reality that communities experience when going online, with many parts of the country reporting speeds that fall below the FCC’s current benchmark for fixed broadband service of 25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload.”

    It also, “puts poverty and lack of broadband access on the same page,” and illustrates where high-poverty communities are located and how that relates to internet usage patterns, as well as to a lack of computers and related equipment.”

    At the June 15 regularly scheduled Camden Select Board meeting, members approved appointing newly-elected Select Board member Matt Siegel to be one of, and so far, two directors of the new Midcoast Internet Development Corp. Camden voters had approved the interlocal agreement establishing the Corporation at their June 8 annual town meeting.

    The June 15 vote was not a slam-dunk, and followed only after a long discussion about process. Questions were raised as to whether bylaws of the new organization should be produced before appointing directors, but in the end, everyone agreed the two goals — getting the corporation established and bylaws approved — could simultaneously evolve.

    At the June 9 post-town meeting organizational session of the Rockport Select Board, member Denise Munger had been elected to Rockport’s director on the Midcoast Internet Development Corporation. Voters in that town had likewise approved the interlocal agreement at their June 8 annual town meeting.

    The board will not be complete, however, until the two directors appoint an executive director. That will most likely be Debra Hall, of Rockport, a former Select Board member there who actively worked over the past two years on the local broadband effort.

    “The Board is not complete until third is appointed and that person will be the Executive Director per the  interlocal agreement,” she said, June 17. “They will be signing a unanimous consent that will name me as Executive Director and third Board member.”

    With but two towns so far signed on, the quasi-municipal corporation board will be small; yet, the founding towns are hoping other municipalities will join them. The goal is to be proactive with extending broadband (high speed) internet to all citizens.

    “"The internet is our highway to the future, yet thousands of people and businesses in Maine still cannot access or afford high-speed internet," Mills said, in April.

    Other Midcoast municipalities have been cited by organizers for inclusion in the Corporation, such as Thomaston, but have yet to formally sign on.

    Citizens in Thomaston voted June 8, 228 to 51, to authorize the Select Board there to enter the interlocal agreement.

    On June 14, Thomaston Select Board members voted 3 to 2 against immediately signing on with the Corporation but unanimously to move ahead with a feasibility study, which will cost $15,000.

    Other municipalities, including South Thomaston, Rockland and Union have voted to to pursue feasibility studies, as well.

    Cushing, at its June 17 special town meeting approved authorizing its Select Board to enter the interlocal agreement and approved spending $5,000 on a feasibility study.

    The broadband initiative has been under discussion for years in the various Midcoast towns and cities of Rockland and Belfast, but with this latest development, the Midcoast Internet Development Corporation, itself a public utility, has been created is to leverage state and federal grant money, and can, as structured, pursue municipal revenue bonds.

    The Biden Administration is supporting these efforts and is proposing a $100 billion broadband package, “with plans to channel funding to government-owned, non-profit or cooperative networks and a push to reduce prices,” according to an Axios article: Biden broadband agenda takes aim at Big Telecom

    And the State of Maine, under the direction of Gov. Janet Mills, outlined last April intentions to move broadband expansion forward with the creation of the Maine Connectivity Authority.

    The ConnectMaine Authority: “would be empowered to own physical broadband infrastructure, such as poles and wires, and hold equity in broadband projects. It would also be empowered to provide grants and loans and partner with the private sector and local communities to leverage investment and coordinate buildout of infrastructure. Taken together, the Authority positions Maine to take a more proactive approach to closing the digital divide in rural and hard-to-reach communities that will focus on meeting Maine’s current and future needs, rather than reacting in a piecemeal fashion with various private companies to construct a patchwork of infrastructure.”

    Creating a Midcoast public utility is not unique to the broadband initiative, but it does involve legally weaving together independent municipalities for a common goal. And while feasibility studies will get underway in other towns, Camden and Rockport are forging ahead.

    At the  June 15 Camden Select Board meeting, Matt Siegel told board members that the Midcoast Internet Coalition, which is the precursor to the Corporation, had been working for six weeks on bylaws using references as models, and working with experts in the region and around the country.

    “It’s not a new process,” he said.

    Board Chair Bob Falciani said the executive director post would be a volunteer position, “at this point.”

    Board member Alison McKellar asked whether the Camden Select Board has the right to change its representative to the MIDC.

    Siegel responded that directors appointed for set terms, and that they can be withdrawn.

    The question was raised as to whether the bylaws would incorporate weighted votes (as currently structured with the Mid-Coast Solid Waste Corporation (Camden, Hotel, Lincolnville and Rockport trash utility) or a one-vote, one municipality model.

    Siegel said the coalition looked at that issue, and associated hard feelings that are occasionally generated by the weighted-vote model. He said the bylaws would likely incorporate the one-town, one-vote structure.

    The goal, he said, is to break down barriers. and give power to small communities.

    Newly elected board member Sophie Romana was concerned that the bylaws had not been produced prior to the election of directors.

    “Why not set up bylaws and then elect directors,” she asked.

    Falciani said the immediate goal of electing directors was to establish the corporation and get funds already approved into a bank account.

    Town Manager Audra Caler said the bylaws would return, “for scrutiny by the Select Board.”

    “This isn’t going be the final board,” she said. “We hope for more communities, but [they are] waiting for structure to be in place.”

    It is the esponsibility of Camden and rockport to get structure in place, she said.

    “Everyone is expecting that,” said Caler.

    She said that while: “Matt and Denise will be drafting bylaws,” it will be an iterative process with other communities and with Camden and Rockport as charter members. It is something that Matt and Denise will not be doing in a vacuum.”

    Romana said her concerns were based on regard for the integrity of the process.

    “It’s a matter of due diligence,” she said,

    McKellar agreed with Romana, and asked whether there would be a requirement that the Corporation meetings be held as public meetings.

    Siegel said currently there were no legal requirements that the nonprofit utility would be required to have open meetings.

    While the discussion continued as to whether the bylaws needed to come first, or the appointment of a Camden representative to the board, Siegel eventually characterized the issue as the “chicken versus the egg,” and said, “we need to get this started.”

    Matt: table it, so reviewed and voted upon July 6.

    McKellar agreed and said the voters approved the process that had been laid out.

    The board then voted to approve Siegel as the director to the new MIDC with the expectation that bylaws would be ready to be reviewed by the board’s next July 6 meeting.

    Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657