Optimism for constructive, bipartisan work in the Maine Legislature — if ever present — wanes in election years. But signs indicate a rare opportunity for Gov. Paul LePage, in his final year in office, to work productively with the Legislature to tackle one of Maine’s greatest challenges: providing our rural communities with state-of-the-art broadband access to give a lightning speed kickstart to our economy and enrich our lives and livelihoods.
World-class broadband infrastructure is vital for Maine to attract and retain workers and businesses, particularly in rural areas. It is crucial not only to emerging tech enterprises, but also our traditional businesses like blueberries and forest products, our scores of small manufacturers, our access to quality health care, and our flourishing arts communities.
The reality is that, in broadband, Maine is a laggard, and we are rapidly losing ground, not only in the U.S. but globally.
Bills have been submitted to address this problem. One bill — LD 520 — would provide up to $100 million in funding, while other bills would reorganize the state’s priorities and processes for making broadband investments. The governor is expected to weigh in soon with a proposal being drafted in the Department of Economic and Community Development.
As policymakers take up the thorny issue of public funding, they would be wise to establish some agreed guidelines upfront. Here are eight principles for any public funding:
— We should not just hand subsidies to big cable or telephone companies so they can build monopoly service and wring every last cent out of ratepayers while offering inferior service. There ought to be an auction, open to all bidders, where the best bid wins.
— The best bid should not just be the lowest price. It ought to be the best deal for the taxpayer and include important public objectives. Any public investment ought to be in a network that is very fast, very reliable, very secure, future proof, open access and network neutral.
— Very fast means that extra points should be given to bids with speeds of at least 1 gigabit per second for both downloading and uploading, speeds seen in the urban U.S. and other advanced parts of the world, such as Japan, South Korea and China.
— Very reliable means that every bid should have a minimum reliability commitment, and there ought to significant penalties for not meeting the commitment. Even now, health care, public safety and businesses rely on the internet, and in the future this will be ever more important.
— Very secure means that security needs to be designed and built from the ground up. There ought to be a binding commitment to security practices in winning bids.
— Future proof means that public investment ought to be in infrastructure that will last for many decades, not just five to 10 years. Bid points should be awarded based on longevity.
— Open access means that higher points should be given to bids that provide consumers with a choice of providers.
— Network neutral means that providers using public funds should not be allowed to block websites or charge extra for not slowing down content. Maine’s small businesses using the internet need to be able to compete fairly.
Taking advantage of its strengths of ingenuity and frugality, Maine has the opportunity to lead the nation in public-private infrastructure partnerships that actually are a good deal for taxpayers. Let’s ensure that our funds are not spent to pad the bottom lines of the big telecom companies, but rather to secure prosperity and opportunities for all of us.
Richard A. Bennett of Oxford is a former president of the Maine Senate and is a board member of GWI, a Maine-based broadband and telephone company.
Follow BDN Editorial & Opinion on Facebook for the latest opinions on the issues of the day in Maine.