We were excited to sponsor and participate in the 2019 Maine Broadband Summit that was hosted by the Maine Broadband Coalition in partnership with the Island Institute, GrowSmart Maine, Fourth Economy Consulting, and the ConnectME Authority.
The first Broadband Summit was held about four years ago and, in addition to emphasizing the need for fast reliable broadband Internet throughout the state, showcased success stories from other states. The attendees, myself included, were all proponents of broadband deployment trying to figure out how to make it work in Maine. We learned about regional broadband co-ops in the Midwest, a fledgling municipally owned network in Leverett, MA, and heard about relevant legislation.
While at this year’s event, I couldn’t help but recall that first Broadband Summit. I was struck by both the similarities of the events and more importantly the evolution that has taken place.
The demographic of attendees had not changed very much; broadband-minded community leaders, broadband consultants, and Internet service providers made up the bulk of attendees at both events, although this year there were more state legislators in attendance, and more individual towns and communities represented.
At the 2015 Broadband Summit, many of us sat there wide-eyed and in awe of the success stories we heard and, I assume, wondering if we’d ever get to a place of sharing our own success stories.
Fast forward to Broadband Summit 2019, we did hear success stories from away, but most importantly we heard stories from successful community broadband projects in Maine.
After OTELCO constructed Fiber to the Premise (FTTP) to 69 homes in Alton, the Town, led by Select Board Chair, John Belding contacted us to see how we might work together to build out the remaining 260 locations in the town with fiber. With a three-way finding collaborative (Alton, the ConnectME Authority and OTELCO) the project is approximately 75% complete with 89 (34%) of the 260 locations pre-subscribing to service.
As Nicole Briand shared, Bowdoinham had been looking at broadband enhancement for several years with little progress until LCI came to the table. Ultimately, this was a shared funding collaborative with LCI constructing, owning and operating the network for the citizens of Bowdoinham.
Cliff Island is actually part of the City of Portland and is the last island out (about a 90-minute ride) on the Casco Bay line. Cliff Island formed an LLC for ownership and used a combination of private and public funds to construct the network that Axiom Technologies operates for the community.
This is a municipally funded and owned FTTP network that was designed, constructed and is operated by GWI.
In addition to the community success stories, there were panel discussions and presentations about everything from the economic, educational and quality of life enhancements that broadband brings.
Maine DECD (Department of Economic and Community Development) Commissioner Heather Johnson presented her keynote address discussing the State’s Economic Development Strategic Plan (currently being drafted) and how reliable broadband plays into almost every element it.
Representatives of the ConnectME Authority, the USDA, the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME), and the Island Institute shared information about the various ways their organizations can support the planning and deployment of broadband infrastructure. One thing that was made abundantly clear during this presentation was that the ConnectME Authority is underfunded and despite approximately $800,000 available in 2020, will likely have to deny a significant number of projects.
A lack of broadband infrastructure funding is not unique to Maine, there are several states that have funding programs where the requests far exceed the available dollars. In Alabama where we serve nearly 13,000 customers, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) administers the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund that last year provided $2.3 million of $10.8 million total project costs to connect 4,000 locations around the state.
In Maine’s last legislative session, there was an opportunity to bridge some of the state’s broadband infrastructure funding gap when Governor Mill’s introduced a bond package that would have provided an additional $15,000,000 for the ConnectME Authority to administer. Sadly, that bond package failed (along party lines) to make it to a public vote in the upcoming election on November 5th.
Going back to the broadband summit attendees; the room was filled with competitors; competitive ISPs, broadband consultants and contractors competing among themselves, and communities and municipalities looking to gain a competitive edge on economic development for their own town or region. One must also assume that in a group of nearly 100 people, both sides of the aisle were well represented, and of course, there were end-users including representatives another sponsor, the AARP, they simply want and need fast reliable broadband.
Despite this group’s differences in professional discipline, business philosophy, and political affiliation, the group shared an almost unanimous sentiment of support for additional funding from the State.
On its website, the Maine Broadband Coalition offers the subtitle: “The Voice of Maine’s internet users working to enable better service for everyone.” After this year’s Broadband Summit, perhaps it should read; “The Voice of Internet in Maine, users, providers, and proponents working to enable better service for everyone.”
Hopefully, in the winter session, our legislators will put their differences aside and endeavor to do the same.