ConnectMaine Expands Affordable Broadband Across the State

ConnectMaine Executive Director Peggy Schaffer discusses her role within Maine government, the challenges and opportunities offered by the pandemic, and getting broadband to the state’s rural areas.

ConnectMaine Executive Director Pegg Schaffer
Peggy Schaffer has worked for nearly 15 years on broadband expansion in Maine, part of a growing group of state government broadband employees. With the COVID-19 pandemic putting a new emphasis on the importance of high-speed home Internet, Schaffer’s work has rarely been so relevant. GT recently spoke with her about her job and the unique challenges Maine presents.

1. Can you describe your role and the work it entails?

ConnectMaine was created in 2006 by the Legislature to expand broadband — both connectivity and use — statewide. We run two grant programs. One is a community planning grant, providing money to help communities expand broadband access. Then, we have a program to actually build out that access and infrastructure. It helps service providers to either expand their network or work with communities to build out an entire community network. 

That’s the job of ConnectMaine. I’m the executive director. I’m a state employee. The program part of me responds to the ConnectMaine Authority Board, but my direct supervisor is the commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development. 

2. What unique circumstances are there in Maine?

Our challenges are distance, density and poverty. Even if we bring a connection to your house, if you can’t afford it, you can’t access it. In Maine, we have a lot of small Internet service providers. We had a lot of small, consolidated telephone companies. The problem is their networks weren’t made to talk to each other. Revamping that so that it’s a bigger network is difficult and expensive. We find it’s very hard for the incumbent provider to upgrade that service. It’s a significant capital investment, and you’re not gaining new customers or revenue. In Maine, we also go from mountains to coast. We have lots of islands. Many have bridges, but when you get to the edge of a road, there’s nowhere for it to go. That again presents a cost challenge. 

3. How has the pandemic changed your work?

It’s done a couple things. It’s overtaxed upload speed. People who had a connection adequate to watch Netflix suddenly have kids at home while they’re also trying to work, and their upspeed is not cutting it. So, there’s been more attention on upspeed. The other piece is that when we first shut down last March, suddenly we had thousands of kids who didn’t have any access to the Internet. We had a crisis. The Department of Education responded by buying Wi-Fi devices. Those Wi-Fi subscriptions ran out, and those kids are still home. We’re trying to get people to understand that infrastructure doesn’t happen overnight and it’s not cheap. That has been a major difference in the conversation.

We’ve been around since 2006, and we got our first major funds infusion this year. The Legislature approved a $15 million bond, and voters approved that by 75 percent. Now, that is more than we’ve spent in 14 years combined, and it’s still a drop in the bucket. We guess it’s somewhere around a $600 million hole to meet need and demand. This cannot be only the states’ or communities’ or providers’ problems. It requires a partnership between states, communities, providers and the federal government. 

4. What projects are you working on right now?

We’re currently using CARES Act money to connect students. We put out $5.6 million for it, and we can continue that program through the funding we have. We are also working on a project with our Department of Health and Human Services to provide free service to low-income parents until June. We’re asking providers to come in with a bulk price. We know there are about 25,000 households with kids that we could hook up. Finally, the biggest project this year will be the actual distribution of the $15 million we have. We’ve had the same grant process since 2006, and we’re in the process of revamping that.

Lauren Harrison is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 10 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.