Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 180

This is Episode 180 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Chris interviews Norm Higgins who is the representative of District 120 in Maine's House of Representatives. They discuss rural connectivity and statewide legislation. Listen to this episode here.

 

Norm Higgins: It's not about making that little circle go faster so your Netflix will come in faster. Do people in your community have the ability to compete on an international marketplace in terms of providing products and services? If the answer is no then we need to do something about it and I think people get that.

Lisa Gonzalez: Hello there, you are listening to Episode 180 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute of for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Man has struggles with some of the worst connectivity in the country. Much of the state is rural and lack of investment from large private providers have left communities in a lurch. In the past two years local leaders have stepped up to raise awareness and in places like Rockport and Sanford Municipalities are developing municipal fiber networks on their own. In Episode 180 Chris talks with State Representative Norm Higgins. 

Rep Higgins has been working on the connectivity issue and describes why and how he came to focus on broadband for his constituent. In this interview learn a little about the progress and the process begin Maine's role in improving connectivity. Here's Chris speaking with State Representative Norm Higgins from Maine.

Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell and today I'm speaking with Norm Higgins the Representative of District 120 in Maine's House of Representatives. Welcome to the show.

Norm Higgins: Thank you.

Chris Mitchell: Norm, you came across our attention because you've been a person that I think is advancing very good well-thought out solutions in Maine to improve Internet access. I wanted to start by asking you to just tell me a little bit about why you ran for the House. I understand you're a retired educator and I'm curious if Internet access, improving it in Maine was a catalyst for your decision to run for the House of Representatives.

Norm Higgins: It was not the catalyst for the me running for the House of Representatives. I had been retired several times and we were in Florida for winters and decided we'd like to do something different with our lives. We returned home and I decided to run for the legislature because I live in a very rural economically disadvantaged part of Maine and I wanted to try to take my life experiences and see if I could help contribute to changing the economic trend lines here to a more positive outlook retaining our young people here. I ran my campaign about 'we can do better.' Broadband was one of the issues that certainly I became aware of but I thought surely after four decades and public education across the state and country that I'd probably serve on the education committee.

There really wasn't an opportunity to do that so I was asked what else I might be interested in. I thought, "Well I'm interested in renewable energy." It seemed like a good community to be on and it was afterwards that I discovered it was energy, utilities and technology. Well I started attending the committee meetings I discovered there wasn't anyone on the committee who had really had expertise in technology and it was not an area that seemed to be getting much of any attention. I thought, "Well, this seems like a good place to dive in and see what's going on." Months later here we are.

Chris Mitchell: Let me just say that you could have described 49 of the 50 states that way I'm guessing. 

Norm Higgins: It was an uncharted course for me but I've really enjoyed it. There's no question about the need here in Maine as it is across the nation. In rural Maine in particular we have really poor business model for capital improvement. If you live in the more populous area of the state you have access to more services but here in rural Maine we're really limited. I think it became clear to me that if we were going to become a vibrant community in the future this was the one thing we could change. We can't change our geography or our climate up here, our old structure but we sure the heck could change the access to communication. It's become a major passion for me here in the past several months.

Chris Mitchell: Maybe let me ask you what role you think the legislature should play. I noticed that you're a Republican and in much of the country we see Republicans arguing that government needs to do less. I'm curious what role you think the State of Maine can play in terms of improving broadband.

Norm Higgins: Well, I am a fiscal conservative Republican but I'm an investment Republican. I believe that the Federal Government and the State Government have a role to invest in those areas that will benefit particularly the national and state economy and local economies. What we're seeing is that when private business is unable for economic conditions or whatever the case may be to be able to provide those services at the level that we need then I think government can play a role as a stimulus and creating additional opportunities. I certainly philosophically have not had an issue with promoting broadband. One of the major pieces of legislation I proposed was municipal broadband access fund.

I spoke to that issue on the House floor and the vote was 143 to zero. Republicans and Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives all recognize the need. The problem seems to be when we take a look at trying to develop policies or allocate the funding to support these initiatives is where the real barriers seem to take place.

Chris Mitchell: Actually I would say that to the extent that we've seen a broad agreement on how to improve Internet access around the country it's often been that Republicans and Democrats have agreed to give money to incoming providers. I guess I'm curious why you've gone with the approach frankly that we're so supportive of. What's the promise of municipal broadband in your mind?

Norm Higgins: The promise of municipal broadband is that the driving force behind it is not about economic profit. The driving force behind it is providing high quality level of services that I often speak to groups talking about what we need to do is to go from worse to first. The dilemma we have now is the current providers will do marginal upgrades providing services but it's never going to get us to be world class where we can actually be competitive on the world market. I believe that's what we need to do. There are just no economic incentives for them to do that and if they don't then someone has to and I believe those decisions are best made at the municipal level.

Chris Mitchell: You ended up introducing a Bill which made it all the way through, it had quite a rocky road despite the overwhelming support that you noted. The governor opposed it and it was caught up in some of the excitement that you've had up in Maine politically. The Bill was designated LD 1185 and I'm curious if you can tell us more about what you had in mind and its path through the legislature.

Norm Higgins: Well I created a broadband, I handed out to every single legislature, met with them one on one. What I was promoting is that it would provide for our planning grants for deep planning or as I tell people if you don't do deep planning you'll be in deep trouble sooner or later. It provided funds with a small funding matching fund to look at comprehensive planning around economic development goals in the community. Also educational, healthcare, public services et cetera. They would complete these analysis and submit a plan to become a broadband certified community and once they were they could apply for a $200,000 grant with some local match.

That would get them started in looking at connecting core businesses and town centers, anchor institutions, government agencies, healthcare et cetera. Never intended to reach the entire residential population but it began that process. Then I thought teams of people at the municipal level were better able to do that. It was never intended that municipalities would actually run these systems, they would actually contract with professionals to design, implement and manage these systems. The ultimate control over it would be at the municipal level meeting municipal objectives. It would tie into a Three Ring Binder here which is 1100 miles of high speed dark fiber that runs throughout the state and runs right through my communities. 

There's a very limited access to that and that was the gist of what was being proposed but obviously was viewed as a major threat to current providers. There was significant opposition to the Bill throughout the legislative session. It did finally pass, the legislature overran governor's veto but they stripped all the money out of it in the process. We have a bill waiting for money which is what we're currently doing is trying to line up funds that are not State of Maine revenues to move into the planning process which I think we're pretty optimistic we're going to be able to vet this Spring.

Chris Mitchell: I think you have a particularly fertile ground for thus kind of approach because of the Three Ring Binder. We just recently did an interview Fletcher Kittredge in which he talked a little bit about that and what he calls the Maine Model of the open access. Did you anticipate this level of opposition or did it take you by surprise?

Norm Higgins: No, I did not anticipate the intensity of the opposition. I think I was surprised by the fact that our administration saw this as a threat to the private business model. It's become somewhat difficult to do. I think as I've reflected upon it I began to feel like I was a one man show on many days. Groups in Broadband Coalition, people like Fletcher Kittredge and others here in Maine who actually helped me think through and helped me design the parameters of the Bill were all very supportive, but they're on the outside and this Bill is tied up into the legislative process which is another quite different process. 

I was taken back in surprise by that. We have the framework of that. There are two other pieces of legislation, we actually passed four major pieces of legislation on broadband I’m very proud that we did. One was to create broadband utility districts which I think will be beneficial in the district and the future for local communities to come together.

Chris Mitchell: Can you tell me what that means?

Norm Higgins: It allows bonding capacity. It allows multiple entities come together and to have the authority to bond for capital expenses. That's new here in Maine, that's not been implemented in the past. I think that came in more under the radar. We have another major Bill, 1063 which was introduced by Representative Sara Gideon, Democrat from Freeport. That is to really increase the scope and level of services of connect Maine to broad mission. They're just finishing the first three perennial plan which will be presented this Friday in fact to their board which I think gives them a greater presence here. 

I have another Bill in 465 which there'd been a 18 to 30% tariff or tax on the Three Ring Binder here in Maine. That Bill passed and that tax ended on October 16th. As a result of that the company that manages it, Maine fiber company, has recently announced that they will provide a half a million dollars in incentives and discounted lease rates particularly in the disadvantaged areas of Maine. Rather than charging an excess fee we're now going to see a discounted fee. I expect that will contribute for the development of the last mile here in Maine.

Chris Mitchell: I remember when that fee was tacked on or the tax on the Three Ring Binder. It seemed to be just an opportunity for the existing providers to find a way of trying to artificially raise the cost of competition in communities that had no real choices which I just thought was terrible. I'm very glad to see that it's gone.

Norm Higgins: Well so am I. That's why I submitted the bill. It started working as I set down a recommendation to do that for two years and it hadn't been acted upon so we submitted a Bill and it actually got broad support in both Houses, both parties and was signed by the governor. I think everybody recognized that was an impediment to broadband expansion here in Maine.

Chris Mitchell: Excellent. What kind of response have you had from constituents and other people across the state as you've elevated the Internet access to such a high level? I do think you're a leader on this, however, there was a lot of Bills that were introduced on this subject. It was clearly a matter of interest across the state.

Norm Higgins: I think it is. When I would approach people in the legislature and I would say, "How do you feel about broadband in Maine?" Everybody said, "Well, you know we need to do a better job." I would say, "Did you bring this up in your campaigns?" I found vast majority of legislatures in fact had talked about this on the campaign trail but didn't seem to be translating that into a pubic policy. I find here in my own community or wherever I happen to go to speak about broadband I tell them it's not about making that little circle go faster so your Netflix would come in faster. I'm not concerned about if you have to wait a little longer.

What I am concerned about is do people in your community have the ability to compete on an international marketplace in terms of proving products and services? If the answer is no them we need to do something about it. I think people get that. I have not had anybody tell me it's a bad idea but it's difficult to break through that private ownership model here in this country.

Chris Mitchell: Yes it is although I think Maine is really one of the leading states on new models to make sure that people have a real choice and that rural communities are not left behind. I definitely want to celebrate your leadership on it. As we wrap up I'm curious if there's anything else you want tell us from your experiences.

Norm Higgins: I think the thing that has perhaps gained great attraction for me living in a rural area where healthcare services are limited in terms of getting quality access to specialized services that I think telemedicine is a driving issue here for us to think about. Just not about economics and education, it's about healthcare and I think it's about home care. Wherever I go and I talk to senior citizens about the healthcare monitoring in the home people talk to me a lot about that. They often times tell me that their number one fear is not about dying, the number one fear is being forced from their homes because of healthcare issues.

I think the longer that we can maintain the independence and the healthcare of our seniors in their home is not a financially a reasonable thing for us to do but I think it's the morally right thing to do. The public I think really does get that piece.

Chris Mitchell: Well, thank you so much for coming on our show and we wish you the best in terms of the next session and certainly in terms of finding the funds that are necessary to move forward the program that you created. Thank you so much.

Norm Higgins: Thank you Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chis and State Representative Norm Higgins from Maine recapping last year's legislation. We expect to see more activity as the state continues efforts to bring better high speed connectivity to rural areas. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @communitynets. You can also follow muninetwroks.org stories on Twitter where the handle is @muninetworks.org. Send us your ideas for the show, email us at podcast@muninetworks.org. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. Thank you for listening for Episode 180 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

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