The ConnectMaine Authority’s Broadband Plan is one step forward and half a step back when it comes to deploying this vital 21st century infrastructure in our district. The agency needs to update its data with the new deployment information that will be provided by the FCC, or rely on studies already conducted by local nonprofits like the Greater Franklin Development Council in its estimates of the cost of a broadband buildout. Furthermore, it ought to return to its previous definition of underserved communities, where very few households can have service of at least 10 Mbps down / 10 Mbps up, as opposed to the FCC’s definition of 25 Mbps down / 3 Mbps up. The FCC definition simply does not allow for important telehealth uses for our seniors, educational uses for our students, and livestreaming uses for our tourism industry. While I strongly support the $15 million bond that will be on the ballot on July 14th, the $200 million over 5 years that the state appears to be budgeting for only covers 33% of the projected cost.
This funding matrix is anything but ideal. Most of ConnectMaine’s funding scenarios seem to estimate a 25% contribution from municipalities for broadband implementation grants, compared to the 16% that they have contributed over the past 5 years for various broadband planning grants. When the town of Phillips struggles to find $4,000 to fund a food pantry with heat, and the state asks them to find far more than that to build broadband connections to the home, that is not “having skin in the game”. It is taking a pound of flesh. The state should step up to make municipalities pay no more than 15% of any broadband implementation projects. I respectfully disagree with Charlie Woodworth’s proposal, made in his testimony in support of the bond, to increase the phone bill assessment that funds ConnectMaine and make it apply to cell phones. This is essentially a regressive tax. We have to find revenue sources that a hedge fund manager in Cape Elizabeth might feel, but a checkout clerk at Edmunds Market in Phillips or a small business owner in Anson won’t.
Finally, the ConnectMaine Broadband Plan says that “if no private provider is willing to serve, even with a capital subsidy, then a government-owned network may be the only viable alternative”. Just as a publicly-owned utility may be the only way to ensure quality, clean energy delivered to Maine ratepayers, we can’t leave out the option of a publicly-owned ISP providing fiber to the home in rural Maine. We have to treat broadband like the essential utility that it is, whatever the FCC says.