2018 is shaping up to be a big year for the ConnectME Authority, and their mission to equip Maine with reliable broadband infrastructure. For those who don’t know, ConnectME is a government agency whose mission is to “facilitate the universal availability of broadband to all Maine households and businesses and help them understand the valuable role it can play in enriching their lives and helping their communities thrive.”
Already this year ConnectME has
- Redefined their definition of “underserved subscribers” to anyone with Internet below 25Mpbs/3Mbps, and essentially widening the amount of communities’ eligible for rural broadband funding.
- Set a statewide broadband target of 100Mpbs/10Mbps
- Published, in partnership with the Maine Department of Economic Community Development, a “State of Maine Broadband Action Plan”
- Announced their intent, with the DECD, to go after a share of the $600 million of federal rural broadband funding
These last two weeks, ConnectME and the USDA have been traveling the state holding “Broadband Community Meetings”. Their goal is to discuss the work they have done so far, and the work that will need to be done to “expand broadband access across Maine”. On Wednesday, OTELCO was able to sit in on one of these meetings, where broadband providers, local and state government representatives, community members and more were excited to discuss municipal broadband expansion in Maine.
Funding was the first thing discussed at Wednesday’s meeting in Skowhegan. Heather Johnson, the Director of ConnectME, was on hand to facilitate the meeting, and to discuss the State of Maine Broadband Action Plan. The Action Plan outlines the state’s intent to cover 25% or $150 million of the funds needed for rural broadband expansion in Maine over the next five years. According to the plan, the rest of the funding will come from a combination of provider, local and federal funds.
Bob Nedau of the United States Department of Agriculture was there to present three funding options that are available through the USDA:
- The Broadband Loan and Grant Program
- The Community Connect Grant
- And the $600 million in funds recently made available in the omnibus congressional spending bill.
Once all the funding options were out on the table, including some mention of municipal bonding, the big question was how best to approach such matters within the community. Johnson recommended approaching municipal broadband funding like one would any other government utility: “Broadband is infrastructure” Johnson said “it’s an expense at the front end, that should add value in the long run. It is an investment.”
Planning and Goal Setting
Planning for broadband infrastructure is a long, and expensive undertaking, so it was no surprise that the planning and goal setting was next up in Wednesday’s discussion. Jeffery Hewett, of the Skowhegan Economic and Community Development Office, found that one big issue towns have when planning is that “they are all starting from scratch, instead of learning from other towns and communities in the area”. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to Municipal Broadband planning, there is help to be had every step of the way. For starters, Peggy Schafer of the Maine Broadband Coalition has been working to provide existing community Infrastructure Plans on the coalition’s website, so that towns can start learning from each other.
In private-public partnerships, providers can help communities with planning. Most providers already have experience in municipal broadband, so they know what does and doesn’t work. There is a limit to what they can help with though. Fletcher Kittredge of GWI, a company that has worked with many municipalities to strengthen their broadband infrastructure, reminded everyone in the room that goal setting is the first step in municipal broadband: “communities need to set goals” said Kittredge “the state doesn’t set goals, the communities do”. Before providers can step in and help communities make an infrastructure plan, the community needs to know what they are looking to gain from their new broadband infrastructure.
One thing that was emphasized in this meeting was how essential community involvement is to these municipal broadband projects. Everyone in the room agreed that the one thing all of the most successful infrastructure projects had was “community champions”, who pushed for better Internet access in their communities. The best way to get your community involved is to make sure everyone understands the benefits rural broadband will have for their community, and for their state.
Maine is often labeled the “oldest state in the country”, with over half of its population landing at over 43 years old. The biggest concerns for the aging population are access to health care and social isolation, which broadband can help with. Access to the Internet can provide aging populations with telehealth technology and social media interaction, but the majority of rural adults don’t know that. The same idea stands for rural communities with dwindling populations and suffering economies. “The best way to make [rural broadband] work is to make it economical”, says Kitridge. If the community can be educated on how access to reliable, high-speed Internet can boost their local economy, then they will be more apt to push for broadband infrastructure.
Keeping the Momentum Going
At the end of the meeting, one thing was clear, people care about rural broadband. As one community member pointed out, “broadband is a bipartisan issue, everyone agrees it is important.” The Internet has become an essential part of life for Americans, and like electricity or clean water, we all deserve access to it. The only way that this is going to happen though, is if rural states like Maine continue to work towards broadband expansion. We cannot let the enthusiasm die out, as Hewitt said at the end of the meeting “the more you talk about the issue, the more you focus on the issue, the more you push forward.” At OTELCO we will keep talking and pushing for rural broadband, not just in Maine, but across the country. If you are interested in joining that conversation, we would love to hear from you.