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Maine Could Receive Up to $500M in Broadband Funding

Officials in Maine estimate that the state could get about $500 million in federal and state funds to bring high-speed Internet to the 78,000 locations in the state that lack broadband.

rural internet
(TNS) — Maine stands to receive up to $500 million from various federal and state sources to expand high-speed Internet access across the state, money that Gov. Janet Mills has said is critical to strengthening the state's economy and transforming rural life.

At least 78,000 locations in Maine don't meet the minimum standards for high-speed Internet service set by the state. Those are 50 megabits per second for download speeds and 10 megabits per second for uploads.

Money for projects is already being dispersed in the state, but the bulk of the funding will start this fall and early next spring.

Here are the funding sources and expected timelines, according to the ConnectMaine Authority, which is charged with expanding the Internet in the state. A separate quasi-governmental group, the Maine Connectivity Authority, was formed by Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature in 2021. It collaborates with the ConnectMaine Authority and was created to administer large amounts of federal funding.

Maine bond, federal pandemic grants, $25 million: Some $8.5 million of a $15 million broadband bond passed by Maine voters in July 2020 was awarded last May for projects throughout the state. The projects will need funding matches from Internet service providers, municipalities and others.

The winners of a second round of grants will be chosen this month for the final $6.5 million from the bond plus $10 million from American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, federal funds.

Maine Jobs and Recovery Fund, $21 million: The jobs plan took effect on Oct. 18, 2021, and will use $21 million of the state's $4.5 billion in total ARPA funds for broadband as part of the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program.

Capital Projects Fund, ARPA, $128 million: The U.S. Treasury Department allocated more than $128 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds last year to expand Maine's broadband infrastructure under the Capital Projects Fund. The first grants f0r this money are expected this fall. The state is submitting its project plan for the funds this week, and will have a more definitive timeline for the funds when the plan is approved.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration, matching funds, $33 million: In February the national administration awarded $28 million to the state for broadband infrastructure under the COVID-19 relief bill signed into law in December 2020. Companies and ConnectMaine will match the funds, bringing them to a total of $33 million for seven projects.

ConnectMaine Authority will handle the funds, which will bring a fiber connection to unserved parts of the Rangeley lakes, Farmington, Somerville, Washington, Jefferson, Blue Hill Peninsula and Isle au Haut. In all, 24 municipalities and nearly 15,000 Mainers are expected to benefit.

Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, $100 million, minimum: The federal act aimed at broadband equity, access and deployment could bring the largest chunk of money to Maine for high-speed Internet infrastructure. The White House has issued a playbook for accessing the funding.

Each U.S. state will get a minimum of $100 million, but Maine's Congressional Delegation has estimated that the state could get up to $300 million. The total will depend on underserved areas identified on new maps by the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates Internet service providers.

Grants from the funding, which amounts to $65 billion for broadband expansion nationwide, are expected to roll out in Maine in the fall, Peggy Schaffer, director of the ConnectMaine Authority, said. The federal notice of eligibility, match funds, project plans and structure to use the funds is expected to be released later this month. The new Maine Connectivity Authority will work on a five-year plan for the funds over the summer.

The amount of money flowing into the state for high-speed Internet could make a huge dent in the digital divide, she said. The infrastructure act funding includes money for digital inclusion and subsidized services for low-income people. Federal guidelines for those funds are due out this summer and funding could be available by next spring, Schaffer said.

The infrastructure act money would provide Internet access to at least 42,000 Mainers who currently lack it, the White House said during a briefing on Wednesday.

Under the infrastructure act, 310,000 Mainers, or 23 percent of the state's population, will be eligible for the Affordability Connectivity Benefit, which will provide $30 per month so low-income families can afford Internet access. Many Internet service providers are expected to offer plans for $30 or less per month, Ryan Berni, senior advisor on the White House infrastructure team, said.

Schaffer underscored the importance of including affordability, digital literacy and devices to ensure people can actually use the Internet.

"That is huge and the first time these efforts have been included in the understanding of what 'infrastructure' is," she said.

©2022 Bangor Daily News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.