Gov. Mills presents plan to achieve universal availability of affordable broadband

Tue, 04/27/2021 - 7:00am

    AUGUSTA — Governor Janet Mills unveiled legislation Monday to establish the Maine Connectivity Authority, a new entity charged with achieving universal availability of high-speed broadband in Maine.

    The creation of the Authority comes as Maine is expected to receive as much as $129 million through the American Rescue Act Plan signed into law by President Biden last month that can be used for broadband expansion.

    The Maine Connectivity Authority, which would be established under bipartisan legislation (LD 1484) sponsored by Senator Rick Bennett (R-Oxford) and co-sponsored by Representative Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham) and the other Co-Chairs of the Legislature’s Broadband Caucus, would put Maine in the driver’s seat in expanding affordable broadband, according to a news release. 

    The Authority would use Maine’s federal allocation of funding for broadband. Moreover, in a new approach distinct from but inclusive of the ConnectMaine Authority, it 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.

    “High speed internet is as fundamental as electricity, heat, and water. It is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. We need to have affordable, high-speed internet throughout our state, and with willpower we will get there,” said Governor Mills. “My Administration has made expanding access to broadband a priority, securing the first state-level investment in more than a decade and bringing high-speed internet access to more families and students across Maine. Taking this step to develop the Maine Connectivity Authority puts us on the best path forward to use the American Rescue Plan funds to expand internet access, especially in rural Maine, and to speed up our economic recovery from the pandemic.”

    The effort to create the Authority also comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for accessible, affordable broadband, the release noted.

    Last year, as the pandemic took hold, more Maine people began working from home, while businesses, educational institutions, health care providers and others began offering remote services. However, the lack of affordable and accessible broadband, especially in rural areas, limited the ability of Maine people to engage and adequately access services.

    The Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee (ERC), charged with charting Maine’s economic recovery after the pandemic, urged the State to prioritize investment in affordable, high-speed broadband statewide to increase access to distance education, remote work, and telemedicine.

    Specifically, the ERC recommended convening public, private, and philanthropic stakeholders to map, prioritize, and complete program design for universal broadband in anticipation of new funding and advancing digital equity and inclusion by increasing access to broadband, computers, mobile devices, and expanded digital literacy training for historically underserved individuals and communities.

    The Authority will pursue these goals. More specifically, under the legislation, the Authority is charged with ensuring that effective, accessible connectivity be universally available in the state; that there be secure, affordable, reliable, competitive and sustainable forward-looking infrastructure that can meet future needs; and that all residents, businesses and institutions in Maine be able to take full advantage of the economic, health, educational, and other opportunities available through connectivity services.

    The legislation creates a Board of Directors to govern the Authority, which will be comprised of seven members appointed to three-year terms. Four members will be appointed by the Governor, one by the Senate President, and by the Speaker of House. The Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development will also hold a seat.

    “High-speed broadband is crucial to Maine’s economic future. It will offer options for businesses to start or expand in rural areas,” said Heather Johnson, Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development. “As we look to grow our workforce and bring new people and new jobs to our state, stable funding provided by the American Rescue Plan allows us to optimize a model that aligns to leverage the private sector’s construction and growth planning. This new authority provides a stable ownership of the process of building out the infrastructure needed.”

    The legislation is scheduled for a public hearing Tuesday, April 27 before the Legislature’s Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology.