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Maine Lawmakers Propose Diverting $1 Million from General Fund to Back Rural Broadband

The original plan was to allocate $6 million to expanding broadband Internet, but because state legislators couldn't agree on where it would come from, they settled for appropriating just $1 million.

by Steve Mistler, Portland Press Herald, Maine / February 3, 2016
Maine State House, Augusta, Maine flickr/David Wilson

(TNS) -- Rural Mainers and businesses struggling with slow or nonexistent Internet access could benefit from a bill that will send an additional $1 million to the state agency that oversees broadband expansion.

The Legislature’s Energy and Utilities Committee voted 9-3 Tuesday to back the proposal sponsored by Rep. Robert Saucier, D-Presque Isle, and co-sponsored by Republican and Democratic legislators from rural districts.

The bill originally sought to increase funding for the ConnectME Authority, the agency charged with increasing broadband access, by up to $6 million. It was backed by the Maine Farm Bureau and other agricultural associations hoping higher Internet speeds will grow their businesses.

Lawmakers struggled to agree on the funding source. At one point, the committee considered adding a surcharge on mobile phone bills, a proposal backed by the Office of the Public Advocate, the state agency advocating on behalf of ratepayers on energy, utility and communication policy.

The panel eventually jettisoned the idea and on Tuesday settled on a proposal that will divert $1 million from the state’s General Fund. If the bill, L.D. 826, passes, the appropriation will be annual, nearly doubling the ConnectME Authority’s current annual budget of approximately $1.1 million.

ConnectME is funded by a .25 percent surcharge on communications providers, including landline telephone and Internet service providers. That’s equal to 25 cents on a $100 bill.

In written testimony provided during the public hearing held last year, Timothy Schneider, the public advocate, said ConnectME was woefully underfunded. He also advocated for extending the surcharge to mobile phone bills.

According to its 2015 annual report, ConnectME has provided 122 grants worth over $10 million to increase broadband access since it was established in 2006. Over that time, households and businesses have seen access to broadband increase from 86 percent to 93 percent. However, those figures are based on old benchmark speeds. Only 12 percent of Maine households meet the newer standard of 10 megabites per second, or mbps.

According to ConnectME’s annual report, broadband is a key engine of economic growth because a vast majority of American consumers looking for goods and services begin their search online.

“The annual sales of Maine’s sole proprietorships and small businesses amount to approximately $21.7 billion a year. If these enterprises were at the national average, the result would be increased annual sales of nearly $50 million a year,” the ConnectME report stated.

The proposal will now go to the full Legislature for additional votes.

©2016 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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