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King takes part in panel on funding broadband expansion

By Fran Gonzalez | Apr 02, 2021
Source: Maine Broadband Coalition Facebook page

Augusta — Within the past several months, a seismic shift has been felt on the high-speed internet landscape with huge amounts of federal funding aimed at broadband expansion, some of which is headed to Maine.

Help paying for internet

Financial aid is available to help low-income people pay for internet access.

ConnectMaine Authority Executive Director Peggy Schaffer said that the Emergency Broadband Benefit program is a $3.4 billion fund administered through the FCC and aimed at benefiting low-income households through ISPs for broadband.

The program will provide a $50/ month benefit, with eligibility based on a wide variety of income criteria for the duration of the pandemic. It is a reimbursement to providers, but applicants must apply, Schaffer said.

For more information on this fund, visit  fcc.gov/broadbandbenefit.

The Maine Broadband Coalition, an advocacy group that is working in partnership with ConnectMaine  to secure universal, affordable and equitable access to broadband, held an online meeting March 22 to outline the American Rescue Plan Act, along with other resources currently available across the state.

Maine independent U.S. Sen. Angus King, calling in from an airport before hopping on a plane, said this is a "transformational moment for Maine," and added that "we have to seize it."

The appropriation for Maine from the American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law March 11, will be more than previously expected. "It will probably be more like $120 million...," King said, and added that while it is not enough to get the job done, it is a step in the right direction.

This funding is on top of the $15 million bond passed last summer to expand broadband in the state, plus additional monies earmarked for specific cities and towns. In all, King estimated municipalities will receive over $1 billion in state and federal funds, as well as those targeted for schools.

"There's a lot of money coming in ... and there will be some flexibility on the use of those funds," he said, "but how it's executed is going to be absolutely critical."

King recommended the expansion should be as "future-proof" and as widespread as possible with future needs taken into account. Areas with inadequate coverage or speed should be the immediate focus, he said.

The funds will be made available to the state in the form of block grants, "which gives us a great deal of discretion on how to utilize it most effectively, he said."

Peggy Schaffer, executive director of ConnectMaine Authority, said the $15 million bond approved by voters last summer "is the first real money that ConnectMaine has gotten in the last 10 years."

Funding options

ConnectMaine is currently accepting applications for infrastructure grants, she said, with applications for this round due by mid-April and decisions likely by May. This is the first round of funding, she said, with additional grants available later this summer.

Municipal matching funds are critical, Schaffer said, to being considered for this resource. Communities will need to have a match and a private ISP partner when applying for funds. To find out more, visit maine.gov/connectme/grants/infrastructure-grants.

Schaffer said United States Department of Agriculture has a ReConnect Program which will probably be opening a new round of grants in the near future, thanks to the CARES Act.

According to Schaffer, the ReConnect application and implementation process is complex, but another option nevertheless. To qualify she said, you cannot have any more than 10 megabits-per-second download and one mbps upload speed. For more information and to apply, visit usda.gov/reconnect.

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a resource administered by the Federal Communications Commission with a goal of closing the digital divide, recently awarded monies to four internet service providers in Maine. Consolidated Communications, Pioneer Broadband, Redzone and Starlink will be receiving a total of just over $71 million in federal funds to expand internet services to unserved areas of the state.

Sarah Davis, senior director of governmental affairs at Consolidated Communications, speaking at a Feb. 23 webinar on broadband expansion in Maine, said CCI will receive $31 million and bring service to just over 1,532 census blocks, or 11,513 locations within the state with fiber networks. Pioneer Wireless Inc. of Presque Isle will receive $5.5 million to serve 243 census blocks or 1,638 locations. Redzone Wireless of Camden will receive $507,000 to service 39 census blocks or 755 locations and Elon Musk’s Starlink Services LLC, based in Redmond, Washington, will receive $34 million to service 1,978 census blocks or 13,849 locations with his low orbiting satellite network.

Davis said, “It’s all incremental. Every day that we are building fiber, we’re pushing it closer to the consumer — creating an easier situation to get it to the next consumer.”

To see the different levels of service associated with RDOF funding, visit fcc.gov/reports-research/maps/rdof-phase-i-dec-2020/.

Connecting schools

Federal funds benefiting education include Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief fund (ESSER) and Governor’s Emergency Education Relief fund (GEERF). Both funds can be used for a huge variety of things, including PPE and retrofitting ventilation systems but, Schaffer said, they can also be used for connectivity. She recommends talking to the superintendent of one's school district about how the community can possibly use these funds.

The Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund for Broadband, Schaffer said, is part of the American Recovery Plan Act, which Sen. King mentioned which would benefit Maine. Potentially the state will receive between $100 million and $120 million to expand broadband plans.

Schaffer said at this point “there is not a lot of language around it,” and rules and guidelines will be forthcoming within 60 days. The language is vague, she said, and will require the Treasury Department to set up some structure. “There’s still a lot of squishy room in this,” she added.

There is also ERATE funding, which supports schools and libraries. Schaffer said the FCC is currently writing guidelines, but the language supports hotspots, Wi-Fi, and devices. Schaffer said with this program, there are opportunities to create networks that can expand connectivity to areas of a town that can be reached by wireless. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/ytjts6pf.

She said it is important to realize how municipalities can stack all these funds together — federal, state, local, education funds, private provider funds “to make these bills actually happen.” Planning is instrumental, along with open communication with all partners, including municipalities, schools, community residents and ISPs, she said.

Homework and planning important

Guest speaker Nick Battista, senior policy officer at Island Institute, recommended that communities do their homework and get projects ready before applying for grants. Know the key facts about the number of homes that can be connected, the cost to build, the operating model, and who your partners are, he said.

Keep open communication channels with ISPs, schools and community members. Battista said, “Don’t surprise your community and ask them to take a big leap.”

Municipalities should decide whether they are going to own the infrastructure or partner with an ISP who will own it. They should also know who will operate the network if they decide to own it. Plan for the future, as if “this is the only public subsidy you get for the next 25 years for infrastructure," he said.

Plan how to fund the project. “Are you putting a meaningful chunk of infrastructure funding … on your town warrant for the town meeting this spring?” he said. “You should be thinking about that.” Whether asking the community to contribute money or approaching an ISP, “these aren’t easy conversations to have” but are really important.

The state has set a goal to contribute 25% of the total cost of expanding the availability of broadband to connect 95% of potential subscriber locations by 2025. For more information and to apply for funding, visit maine.gov\connectme. To see a recording of the meeting, visit tinyurl.com/vxc7xavv. Also, to take an internet speed test to generate real-time data and discover where broadband is needed, visit mainebroadbandcoalition.org/.

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