Maine Broadband Initiative Ready to Hit the Ground Running

Sworn in earlier this month as president of the newly created Maine Connectivity Authority (MCA), Andrew Butcher says he is ready “to hit the ground running,” shepherding Maine’s efforts to bring universal access to high-speed Internet service in one of the most rural states in the nation.

The MCA, first proposed last year by Gov. Janet Mills and created through bipartisan legislation, will oversee the influx of federal funds the state has received from the American Rescue Plan Act and funds the state will get from the recently passed Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act.

The quasi-governmental agency will remain distinct from (but coordinate with) the ConnectMaine Authority, which administers the state’s broadband grant programs.

In a statement released after Butcher was sworn-in, Gov. Mills said:

I am grateful for the Senate’s unanimous confirmation, which is a testament to their confidence in Andrew’s experience and expertise to lead the Maine Connectivity Authority. With Andrew at the helm, and with the Authority’s Board fully in place, it is time to build on our work to expand access to affordable broadband. Broadband is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity for every person, every family, and every business across Maine, and with today’s vote, we are taking another step forward in our effort to make universal broadband a reality for Maine people.

For his part, Butcher said he was “humbled by (the) unanimous confirmation of the Senate and am honored for the opportunity to serve Maine as we look to build the infrastructure of the future. We can get there from here. Many have forged the path to get here and I'm eager to get to work connecting everyone.”

Getting ‘there from here’

In an op-ed published earlier this week by the Bangor Daily News, Butcher wasted little time in making his first announcement as the new MCA president, noting that the MCA Board of Directors had recently voted to allocate $10 million of the state’s Rescue Plan funds for ConnectMaine’s spring round of grants. That money will be combined with the $6.5 million of funds still left from the $15 million broadband bond voters overwhelmingly approved last summer.

Although MCA is a new state agency, Butcher, who had previously served as director of the Maine Broadband Coalition, did note how the state began ramping up investment in broadband infrastructure last year. However, he wrote, the new agency will “be more proactive in addressing problems.”

Butcher also took the opportunity in his op-ed to manage the expectations of broadband hungry Mainers: “The road ahead is long,” he wrote, “but rest assured: Expanding broadband access is one of our state’s imperatives this year and next.”

Unlike the 17 states in the nation with preemption laws that either ban municipal broadband projects or erect barriers to protect monopoly incumbents from competition, Maine lawmakers have put local Internet choice at the center of the state’s plan to expand fast, reliable, and affordable broadband service, especially in Maine’s more sparsely populated rural areas.

In his op-ed, Butcher – who has also previously served as director of innovation and resilience for the Greater Portland Council of Governments and was instrumental in the push to pass last year’s $15 million broadband bond – reiterated the state’s commitment to a community-centric approach in which local and regional governments play a leading role.

The expansion of broadband across Maine will require a continued surge of community organizing to prepare for broadband expansion in local municipalities. Groups of school officials, small business owners, civic leaders, librarians, and community volunteers have the power to create momentum and consensus for action, as has been demonstrated in dozens of places across the state.

Counties and municipalities have important power, as they still have funding made available through the American Rescue Plan and can help make strategic investments to enhance connectivity throughout the state. The MCA encourages partnership and is eager to support regional efforts.  

The Maine Road Ahead

In the coming months, Butcher wrote that the MCA will accelerate efforts to implement Maine’s newly adopted broadband strategy.

Last week, Butcher told MaineBiz that the primary immediate focus will be identifying where Maine’s workforce will be located, while also zeroing in on remote parts of the state, including areas that currently have Internet access but are starving for better connectivity speeds and greater reliability.

He went on to add how the pandemic underscored the need for better broadband to support jobs, schools, and telehealth services, as well as how the agency was in the process of beefing up staff by hiring a chief financial officer and about 10 new staffers over the next year. 

All told, MCA will be overseeing a minimum of $250 million being devoted to expanding broadband access in Maine, which includes $20 million in states funds from the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan, $130 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan, and another $100 million in forthcoming federal funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

“This is absolutely 10 times, 20 times what the state has had at its disposal to invest in broadband. Which is great. But the estimate two years ago of the cost to address connectivity needs were about $600 million, and that was before labor and cost of materials increased,” he said, adding that the statewide broadband initiative is fundamentally about providing the state with a powerful “economic development tool.” 

And while the MCA will lead the state’s efforts, Butcher told MaineBiz that the Connect Maine Authority has been, and remains, a major player in enacting the state’s plan. Speaking of the Connect Maine Authority, Butcher said that agency has had a “high level of obligation and a low level of funding.” But, with the new Maine Connectivity Authority, “we now have the ability to think through the lines and work across silos and talk with education, health care, transportation industries to come up with solutions, share resources and get more things done.”

Many of the local projects already underway, we have covered here at MuniNetworks.org. Read more about those projects here.

As Maine moves forward, something else community broadband leaders are thinking about is possibly borrowing from the approach being used in the neighboring (and very rural) state of Vermont. Vermont has established Communication Union Districts (CUDs) as the primary vehicle to deliver universal high-speed Internet connectivity to state residents and businesses. The enabling law in Vermont allows two more towns to form telecommunication utilities to build and own the infrastructure needed for better broadband. We have extensively covered Vermont and the emergence of CUD’s here.

Inline image of Andrew Butcher swearing-in ceremony courtesy of Gov. Mills office. No copyright infringement is intended

Inline Map of Maine’s Served, Underserved, and Unserved Areas, July 2020, courtesy of the Connect Maine Authority