Committee greenlights Bellows bill to expand broadband access in Maine

Posted: May 08, 2017 | Senator Bellows

Rural communities’ future depends on improving access to reliable, high-speed Internet

The Legislature’s Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology voted 7-2 to endorse a bill by Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, that would pave the way for a new round of broadband expansion in Maine, with a goal of connecting every family, small businesses and school with reliable, high-speed Internet.

The bill — LD 1399 “An Act To Encourage Broadband Coverage in Rural Maine” — would create the Maine Broadband Initiative, a public-private entity with the authority to undertake planning and investment in advanced communications technology infrastructure, defined by the bill as broadband and wireless coverage at competitive upload and download speeds.

Today, 85 percent of Mainers don’t even have access to upload/download speeds of 10 Mbps, a benchmark that’s rapidly becoming outdated as it is unable to meet the current demands of businesses and families.

“Access to high-speed, reliable Internet is as essential to our communities today as the Interstate, telephone service and electricity were in the last century,” said Sen. Bellows. “Investing in broadband now will enable us to reverse the brain drain and grow our rural economies.”

The MBI would be empowered to create statewide broadband benchmarks and strategies for meeting them, and would plan, construct, acquire or improve broadband infrastructure in Maine. It would support local and regional broadband expansion and serve as the fiscal agent for public investment in broadband.

This broad authority, which is intended to leverage private investment, is necessary to fill in the gaps in coverage across our state. Filling those gaps is essential in order for rural and island communities to thrive.

LD 1399 is revenue neutral. MBI would be funded by diverting revenue from the existing telecommunications excise tax, which currently goes into the General Fund, into the buildout of advanced communications technology infrastructure.

At a recent public hearing, people and companies from around the state spoke in favor of the bill including: John Hafford, who owns DesignLab, a graphic design firm in Millinocket; Stephenie MacLagan, economic development association at the Island Institute; the Maine Farm Bureau; ConnectME Authority; Maine Municipal Association; and GrowSmart ME.

LD 1399 now heads to the Senate for initial votes.