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Maine Broadband Efforts Prep to Reward Bond Money

Last month, the state awarded $5.6 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to connect more than 700 students and teachers in rural Maine with high-speed Internet service to support remote learning.

by Glenn Jordan, Portland Press Herald / December 16, 2020
Mercedes Mehling/Unsplash

(TNS) — Last month, the Mills administration awarded $5.6 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to connect more than 700 students and teachers in rural Maine with high-speed internet service to support remote learning.

The ongoing public-private partnership, dubbed ConnectKidsNow!, involved seven internet service providers, 71 towns and a two-month window. It also provided a few lessons for how the state can best allocate the $15 million approved by Maine voters in July for broadband expansion throughout the state.

Because federal guidelines required the coronavirus relief money to be spent by the end of 2020, the application process for providers had to be simple and clear, said  Nick Battista , chair of the ConnectME Authority and senior policy officer with the Island Institute, a Rockland-based economic development group involved with rural broadband initiatives.

That's a good template for next month, when companies are likely to begin applying for a slice of the bond money.

ConnectME is a component of the Maine Department of Economic & Community Development tasked with making sure the state meets its broadband connectivity goals.

"This has been a huge push on the part of the private sector to make this happen," said Battista, who called the project "one of the things I'm most excited about in broadband right now."

Battista spoke in a webinar hosted by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.  Dana Connors , chamber president, said the discussion was the first in a series of virtual forums that will include government, civic and industry leaders talking about the state's broadband challenges in hopes of coalescing around "ways to create the environment necessary to help speed up the development of reliable, high-speed internet networks throughout Maine."

In addition to Battista, Tuesday's panelists included  Bruce Williamson  of the Maine Public Utilities CommissionBrian Langley  of Bridge AcademyLori Parham  of AARP and  Mike Chowaniec  of Charter Communications.

Another lesson gleaned from the ongoing effort to connect more students and teachers is the issue of utility poles and the lines that attach to them. Maine has a few hundred thousand utility poles and is grappling with challenges associated with ownership, maintenance and how best to handle the need to move some lines to make room for others.

High-speed internet access most often requires fiber-optic cables. Although some are routed underground, most are strung from utility poles that also carry electrical wires and other equipment that is owned privately or publicly.

"The pole attachment of fiber has been one large and surprisingly complex barrier to getting fiber built out sooner," said Williamson, the PUC commissioner. "Access to poles, and getting fiber on them, is a costly process."

Williamson said his agency has been working on the issue since 2015. Under a "one-touch, make-ready" proposal adopted by a few other states, one company's professional could move others' gear on the pole to make space for wiring instead of having every company move its own gear.

If enacted, such a proposal could cut the cost of broadband expansion by 40 percent, Williamson said.

Chowaniec, vice president of Charter Communications, called the relationship between broadband providers and pole owners critically important. And not simply for creating space to add fiber but also for equitably sharing the cost of replacing poles that are on their last legs.

"To the extent we can facilitate efficient communication and efficient contractual relationship," he said, "that's going to speed up buildout and that's going to avoid disputes."

Battista, who said four different communications companies have wires on the poles near his house in Camden, agreed.

"When you have a pole-attachment process that is clear and easier and faster," he said, "the public subsidy goes further and the work goes faster."

Langley and Parham stressed the importance of broadband access in education and among those aged 50 and over, with many seniors already facing issues of social isolation and loneliness even before the pandemic made staying in touch more difficult.

Parham also said people between the ages of 55 and 64 are the country's largest-growing age group of entrepreneurs, and that in 2018 the 50-plus crowd contributed 48 percent, or $34 billion, to the state's gross domestic product while representing 43 percent of the population.

"As we look to attract people to retire here, as we hope that people will stay here," she said, "it's going to be important that we build out a strong internet system statewide."

(c)2020 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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