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Apr. 27—Lawmakers on Tuesday provided more details about a bill that would establish an independent agency to oversee a sweeping expansion of high-speed internet service in the state, a proposal Gov. Janet Mills called "one of the most important pieces of legislation" before the Maine Legislature this year.
An amendment to L.D. 1484, sponsored by Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, would create the Maine Connectivity Authority, a quasi-governmental body tasked with bringing affordable broadband internet service across the state over the next decade. The new agency would likely oversee investing up to $129 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act for internet expansion in concert with communities and private internet providers.
"It is not an expansion of government bureaucracy, it is not a tax authority, an adjudicative authority or a regulatory authority," Mills said in testimony Tuesday before the Legislature's Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology.
The authority would use public funding to leverage private investment, spur infrastructure development and keep prices affordable for consumers, she said.
"It will address not only our infrastructure needs, but also the affordability that faces Maine consumers every day," Mills said.
The expansion of reliable, high-speed internet in Maine has proceeded slowly for more than a decade. Many areas with inadequate service are low-density rural places that are unattractive markets for private, for-profit internet companies, requiring a patchwork of community and regional initiatives.
At least 83,000 households do not have adequate access to broadband, about 15 percent of households in Maine, the ConnectMaine Authority estimated in its 2020 action plan. It could cost at least $600 million to connect underserved areas, it estimated.
Proponents of the bill say reliance on high-speed internet service for education, commerce, employment, medical services and communication during the pandemic have revealed deep inequities in the state and underscored the need for more investment to bring opportunities everywhere in Maine.
The proposed authority would have the power to build and own equipment and property, negotiate contracts with public and private collaborators, provide grants and loans, borrow money and collect data on internet service. It would have a board of directors headed by a president selected by the governor and Legislature.
Even though the authority could own physical infrastructure, officials downplayed its role in constructing and maintaining broadband networks and said it would not be a service provider that sets rates or collects payment from customers.
The state's existing broadband agency, the ConnectMaine Authority, or ConnectME, has an annual budget of around $1 million and a staff of two working to connect the state. But the tsunami of federal funding coming into the state from the rescue plan and a likely infrastructure bill means Maine needs a muscular, strategic body to oversee a comprehensive rollout of broadband internet to every corner of the state, Bennett told the committee Tuesday. Under the proposed bill, ConnectME would remain intact and be housed within the new agency.
"We can and we must seize this unique moment," Bennett said.
Under the bill, the new broadband authority would submit an annual report to the Legislature. It contains a sunset clause that would require the authority to recommend in 2030 whether it had completed its task and could be restructured or abolished, or whether its initial mandate should be renewed.
Rep. Stephen Foster, R-Dexter, questioned whether the proposed entity would have to hire its own personnel to maintain any of the infrastructure it owned, and how that property would be transitioned to another owner once its mandate had expired.
Foster also questioned how the authority would be funded and how much it would cost to administer.
"As you know, I'm always the one who thinks that every available dollar should go to stringing fiber," he said.
The authority is not intended to be a long-term property owner but might need to invest in the short term to install and operate so-called "middle mile" connections between rural communities and larger service areas, Bennett said.
"I think the agency should resist as much as possible ownership of real assets," Bennett said. As for funding, the new agency would need to "create revenue streams so it will not be dependent on taxpayer dollars," he added.
Members of the Maine Broadband Coalition, a group of businesses and nonprofits pushing for expanded broadband service in Maine, and the Office of the Public Advocate testified strongly in favor of the proposal.
"You have to act this session," said Fletcher Kittredge, chief executive of GWI, a fiber-optic internet service provider in Biddeford, and co-founder of the broadband coalition.
The state is in line for an unprecedented amount of federal funding for internet expansion, on top of a $15 million bond for broadband access passed by Maine voters last year, with no agency to adequately manage the funds, he said.
There was no testimony against the bill at the committee session Tuesday. Some internet providers including Charter Communications and Consolidated Communications agreed with the goals for the new agency, but emphasized the need to put professionals with experience in technology, communications and finance on its board.
Benjamin Sanborn, executive director of the Telecommunications Association of Maine, said something like the Maine Connectivity Authority could manage internet expansion in the fastest time possible with the most private dollars and the least public funding.
But if the authority will own and operate infrastructure, there needs to be protection for private service providers, Sanborn said.
"We would be strongly opposed to the state becoming a competitor in the market," he said. "We want to include some guardrails in the law around this body."