Growing concern that municipal funding will get stricken from federal infrastructure bill

Municipal broadband coalitions across Maine have support from Senators Susan Collins and Angus King

Wed, 07/14/2021 - 12:45pm

    The flow of federal money to the states for broadband expansion has energized the Midcoast – and Maine – and municipalities have been amping up their efforts to improve internet access for their own citizens. But how to access funds is keeping community organizers on their toes, as they advocate for small towns before the more powerful national and state political interests.

    Municipalities on both sides of Penobscot Bay sent letters this week to U.S. Senator Susan Collins and Sen. Angus King, urging them not to forget about the Maine municipalities working on behalf of their constituents to improve internet access. They specifically were targeting reported efforts to kill funding for municipal broadband effortsin the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill.  

    “For too long, Maine residents have suffered from the decisions of large telecoms and cable providers who cherry-pick the most densely populated areas and leave other residents and businesses behind,” wrote Debra Hall, chair of the Midcoast Internet Coalition, in a July 9 letter (see attached PDF). “Maine deserves better.”

    The Midcoast Internet Coalition,and the most recently created public utility, the Midcoast Internet Development Corporation, are but one likeminded entity among many in Maine. Others include the Western Kennebec Coalition, Southwestern Waldo County Broadband Assc., Downeast Broadband Utility, Katahdin Region Broadband Utility, and the Peninsula Broadband Coalition and the Peninsula Utility for Broadband for the towns along the eastern side of Penobscot Bay.

    A similar letter to that of the Midcoast Internet Coalition was also sent to Sen. Collins from the Sedgwick Broadband Communications Committee and the Peninsula Broadband Coalition.

    “Our committee and coalition have adopted the successful model of DownEast Broadband Utility and are following the path of Midcoast Internet, striving to create a municipal broadband utility without increasing debt or resident taxes,” wrote Jerry Wetterskog, in a letter to Collins. “As with other municipal infrastructure utilities, we believe high-speed broadband deserves the same level of federal grants and funding that water, sewer, and roads currently receive.  We urge you to support our efforts and include funding for municipal/regional broadband efforts in the pending infrastructure legislation.”

    In response, Susan Collins’ office said July 13: “From spurring job creation to supporting telemedicine, access to broadband unlocks almost endless benefits and possibilities,” said Annie Clark, who is communications director with the Washington, D.C., office of Sen. Collins. “To help increase this important access for Mainers across our state, Senator Collins supports allowing Maine municipalities to establish their own broadband utilities.  As a lead negotiator in ongoing bipartisan infrastructure discussions, she is working to help ensure that Maine municipalities will be eligible to receive federal grant funding to build out these community based networks.”

    Sen. Angus King responded: “Access to affordable, high-speed broadband is fundamental to the long-term health and economic success of Maine communities – but for too long, many Maine people have been left behind. In order to serve local communities, regional broadband utilities have been formed in Maine to fill this gap, and I am working to ensure that these entities and public-private partnerships are eligible for federal funds in the upcoming infrastructure legislation. These funds will build on the historic broadband investment I negotiated into the American Rescue Plan earlier this year, which will bring more than $120 million to Maine. In the days ahead, I’ll continue working with state and local leaders, including regional broadband utilities, to expand broadband access to all Maine people, so they can access the internet’s economic, educational, health, and social opportunities.”

    The infrastructure bill that Maine municipalities hope will include money for broadband efforts such as theirs is proceeding through Congress.

    The $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, as outlined by the Biden Administration, includes funding for efforts to, “connect every American to reliable high-speed internet, just as the federal government made a historic effort to provide electricity to every American nearly one hundred years ago. The Framework will also drive down prices for internet service and close the digital divide.”

    The infrastructure spending bill remains under debate, along with a larger national budget package.

    But the small towns in Maine want to make sure that politicians are listening to them.

    “The goals we support as committee and Coalition members include: (1) open access with consumer choice and lower cost through competition; (2) universal access that includes all homes and businesses within the service region; (3) a municipally-owned state-of-the-art fiber optic infrastructure with internet services delivered by traditional Internet Service Providers (ISPs),” wrote the Peninsula Broadband Coalition, in its letter to Collins.

    Its goals are similar to the Midcoast Internet Coalition to establish regional utility district through interlocal agreements, ensure that the network is open access, inviting multiple providers to deliver services to residents and businesses offering a range of products and pricing options and competition, and establish a minimum symmetrical speed of 100 Mbps for download / upload to be provided by any service provider leasing the utility’s open-access fiber network.

    Goals also include creating municipal broadband utilities without increasing debt or resident taxes.  

    The Midcoast Internet Coalition, comprising towns along the west side of Penobscot Bay, holds the same goals as its east bay counterparts, and added to the list the creation of local skilled jobs through a homegrown workforce.

    A public utility has been created with Camden and Rockport leading the effort, but Hall said in her Collins letter: “Importantly, the regional utility will be funded without local taxes or increases in our mil rates. To achieve success, we must raise significant seed money, and seek municipal loans and / or issue revenue bonds.”

    Hall said that Maine taxpayers, “whether Republican or Democrat – whether on the coast or inland – understand that our municipalities must build the infrastructure while letting the ISPs deliver the internet services. We can no longer allow taxpayer funding to be used to enhance the shareholder profits of large telecoms and cable companies at the expense of our citizens.”

    Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at; 207-706-6657