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Spectrum asked MCA to retract two grants, pledging better future service. MCA, rightly, refused.

An interesting incident unfolded last month involving Charter Communications (aka Spectrum), which provides internet services to more Maine customers than any other ISP. Spectrum wrote a letter to MCA requesting that MCA reconsider its Connect the Ready grants to Skowhegan and Madison, and cancel its grant to Wilton.

Those towns have long been serviced by a small Maine-based cable internet provider, Bee Line. In December 2022, well after the grant applications had been submitted and the Connect the Ready selection process had begun, Spectrum informed MCA that it intended to buy a small Maine-based cable internet provider, Spectrum’s letter says it intends to acquire and make upgrades to Bee Line’s network “in the next few years”, which would potentially alter the future conditions for internet customers in Skowhegan, Madison, and Wilton, giving them access to better cable internet. That’s great news for those customers, when (and if) it happens.

In our view, Spectrum’s claimed intentions to do something in the future should have no bearing on how MCA makes decisions in the present. Spectrum’s offer to buy Bee Line could fall through. Spectrum may have made the offer on the assumption that it would be the monopoly provider of broadband in these and the six other Maine towns Bee Line services.

MCA, to its credit, ultimately disregarded Spectrum’s requests. MCA’s grant for Consolidated Communications (aka Fidium) to co-fund a fiber optic network in Skowhegan and Madison was the only one that met a split decision from the MCA board (5 in favor, 3 opposed). MCA has paused the Wilton grant with Matrix for unrelated technical reasons, and MCA expressed confidence that the grant will move forward soon.

Spectrum’s letter and request has no basis in law or in the procedures laid out by MCA for the Connect the Ready grant process itself. A response letter from MCA’s board chair Tim Schneider points out that Spectrum provides no data supporting its internet service claims, and has been less than cooperative in sharing data with MCA all along. He also notes that MCA is developing a process to include ISPs “definitive future build plans” into its grant making process in the future.

If Spectrum or other providers want to clearly map out their future build plans, with commitments to technologies, timelines, and accountability triggers should they fail to deliver, perhaps those plans should be a factor in public funding decisions. But vague intentions stated after a funding window has closed should never be considered. Otherwise, any ISP could claim wild intentions to build out new networks anywhere that the state may fund in the future just to protect their exclusive turf.

In its letter, Spectrum claims its request is driven by a desire to “work with the State to ensure the best use of its funding resources can go to the areas most in need.” Spectrum has been running an influence campaign in Maine for several years, employing industry terms like “prioritize rural,” “overbuilding networks”, or “help areas most in need.” Spectrum's claims, to us, just as easily read as “we don’t want any competition" and "we don’t want our consumers to have any choice.”

We do face funding constraints. There’s not currently enough funding coming to subsidize world-class wired connections to every home and business in Maine. So, prioritization of what we have is key. And there are legitimate, competing views about what those priorities should be. Maine Broadband Coalition uses Our Guiding Values in thinking about competing priorities. Let’s have an open conversation based on what we value, and be honest about what we’re really asking for along the way.

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