Originally appeared in MBC's Broadband Newsletter for 3.2.2023
In their board meeting last week, MCA said they are rethinking their process and criteria for the second round of their Connect the Ready funding stream, and would shift the timeline for new applications from late Spring to early August 2023. MCA President Andrew Butcher cited good feedback from communities and industry as informing their adaptations. Butcher noted “proactively addressing” the structural challenges to regional partnerships, largely to BUDs [Broadband Utility Districts]. He cited a desire to identify and verify the future build plans of private providers. We are very encouraged by MCA’s commitment to solve these issues so that community-owned projects get their fair share of the funding. The state should recognize the wishes of those communities to exercise local control over their assets, and to hold internet providers accountable to their customers and host communities. Of the first round, two of seven community-owned network projects have been funded, in Arrowsic and Vienna. Two bids for Fayette and Wilton, with Connecticut-based provider Matrix, which is new to Maine, may proceed pending further review. Wilton’s bid has a town-ownership stake, according to a letter from MCA. Those which were not funded, in Caribou, Lubec, Wayne, and by regional bidders Waldo County Broadband and Midcoast Internet Development Corporation. These were not prioritized for funding for a variety of reasons according to MCA and the bidders, including:
The prevalence of some ‘underserved’ (i.e., Spectrum-served) territory, according to MCA’s data;
Previous federal grants to private providers which made parts of their towns ineligible for new subsidies;
A comparatively smaller funding match than other bidders;;
An unclear path to establishing credit to finance the match for newly-formed regional entities.
The first three items on this list could have upended any bidder, privately- or community-owned. The fourth item is uniquely problematic for community-owned networks, and fixing it, possibly in cooperation with the Finance Authority of Maine and perhaps with the support of the Maine legislature, was a clear priority.
We can see clearly how private sector bidders for our tax-funded subsidies already have a huge leg up. Incumbent telecom companies enjoy free or easy access to utility poles, established credit histories, and experience writing government grants and meeting reporting requirements. They also have little obligation to ensure accountability or equity in the places they serve. Some communities believe they can do better by taking the lead themselves.
At the first Broadband Caucus meeting, Senator Rick Bennett (R-Oxford) pointed out that affordability is a top concern of his constituents and all Mainers, and that community-owned networks have an incentive to keep prices low. But these projects need more time and state support to come together. We agree.
When a town, or a group of towns, expresses its willingness to make sure our tax dollars are well spent, we should respect their desire for local control of their resources and give them all the support they need to be successful. We at the Coalition are eagerly working with communities who want to go this direction to get that support, either directly by us or with the help of the state.
In other news, we hosted the second Legislative Broadband Caucus last week, and will host the third edition on Wednesday. Check out the videos on our website. We had eight legislators on the call this week. Legislators noted bills they are working on to solve municipal financing or make pole attachments subject to a third-party administrator. We look forward to seeing the drafts of these bills, as they point to real challenges to fast deployment of broadband, local control, competition and affordability.
And, Joe and I are planning with regional partners to put on a dozen community meetings on broadband expansion and digital equity, with funding from MCA, to contribute to the state's Broadband Action Plan that will be used to guide federal investments next year. Look for the schedule coming soon!
- Myles Smith, MBC Executive Director