Maine is the latest battleground for local telecommunications authority. A bill in the state’s House of Representatives threatens to halt investment in “The Pine Tree State” at a time when local communities are taking steps to improve their own connectivity.
"I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means"
Rep. Nathan Wadsworth (R-Hiram) introduced HP 1040; it has yet to be assigned to a committee. Like most other bills we’ve seen that intend to protect the interests of the big national incumbent providers, this one also has a misleading title: “An Act To Encourage Broadband Development through Private Investment.” Realistically, the bill would result in less investment by discouraging a whole sector - local communities - from making Internet infrastructure investment.
Large national companies have thus far chosen not to invest in many Maine communities because, especially in the rural areas, they just aren’t densely populated. In places like Islesboro and Rockport, where residents and businesses needed better connectivity to participate in the 21st century economy, locals realized waiting for the big incumbents was too big a gamble. They exercised local authority and invested in the infrastructure to attract other providers for a boost to economic development, education, and quality of life.
Not The Way To Do This
If HP 1040 passes, the community will first have to meet a laundry list of requirements before they can exercise their right to invest in broadband infrastructure.
HP 1040 contains many of the same components we see in similar bills. Municipalities are only given permission to offer telecommunications services if they meet those strict requirements: geographic restrictions on service areas, strict requirements on multiple public hearings including when they will be held and what will be discussed, the content and timelines of feasibility studies, and there must be a referendum.
The bill also dictates financial requirements regarding bonding, pricing, and rate changes. Municipalities cannot receive distributions under Maine’s universal service fund.
As one of the remaining states that don’t have restrictions on local authority and one of the most rural states in the country, Maine’s towns and counties are the best poised to turn around its status as poorly connected. Inflicting rules on local communities to make the process more difficult will end investment, not encourage it.
In 2015, Rep. Norm Higgins sponsored a bill to create better connectivity through open access networks and by removing investment barriers. When we asked him about HP 1040, he said, "Competition should be encouraged and local control should not be infringed."
State Battles Can Be The Toughest
Interestingly, Wadsworth, is listed as a state chair for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and this bill certainly complements their past work in Maine. It’s easy to see that they want to quell the success of publicly owned networks in rural states in order to prevent the solution from taking hold in more densely populated areas.
This year, similar bills were introduced in Virginia and Missouri. Missouri has seen this fight in the past and, while the bill has been quiet lately, their session isn’t over just yet so anything could happen.
Virginia was especially tough, but grassroots organizations managed to fend off restrictions that could have ended plans for several public projects and plans that included public-private partnerships.
Local Ire For HP 1040
Page Clason, Member of the Islesboro Broadband Committee, described HP 1040:
I would say this proposed bill is puzzling because while suggested to promote investment of broadband in Maine it would do the opposite. Nothing in the bill provides stimulus, most everything in the bill provides increased hurdles and costs for communities needing the broadband investments. The only stimulus I can garner from such an approach would be that the largest providers would be further comforted that no other service providers would show up to do the builds that the dominating providers have not been supplying for the last few decades.
Update: Since publishing our story, the bill was referred to the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology.
Image of the Maine House Chambers courtesy of Maine an Encyclopedia.