Calling the $120 million in federal stimulus funding for broadband infrastructure expansion in Maine a “transformational moment,” Sen. Angus King said the state’s plans to use the money must be technologically “future proof.”
The money puts Maine, which is planning several efforts to get broadband to underserved areas, in the unusual position of suddenly being awash with money. The questions that the senator and broadband experts discussed on a webinar Monday included how to best put the money to work and how to assure that new infrastructure withstands the test of time.
King, a former two-term governor and an independent who caucuses with Democrats, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, negotiated with the White House to get the broadband money into the stimulus bill.
“We have a whole lot of additional money coming to the communities, cities, towns and the state, and there’s going to be a lot of flexibility on the use of those funds,” King told the webinar hosted by the Maine Broadband Coalition.
The pandemic shined a light on slow internet while workers and students stayed at home and added network traffic. The ConnectMaine Authority’s action plan estimated it would cost $600 million to bring high-speed internet to 95 percent of the state. Maine voters passed a $15 million broadband bond in July and the Legislature is considering another $100 million bond that the state’s economic recovery committee recommended to Gov. Janet Mills last year.
The $120 million under the stimulus bill, which will be disbursed in the form of block grants to communities, is higher than the original estimate of $100 million, King said. It is part of the $10 billion the stimulus bill allocated to get the nation up to speed with the internet, but he said substantially more money for broadband should be coming in a new infrastructure package over the next few months.
“We don’t consider this the last word,” King said of that money.
There is other federal money that Maine might receive on top of that, said Peggy Schaffer, executive director of the Connect ME Authority. It includes part of the $100 million to $120 million from the Treasury Department for broadband and water, $411 million for schools from the U.S. Department of Energy that includes broadband and another $7.1 billion from the Federal Communications Commission for needs including broadband for schools and libraries.
With the large amount of federal, state, local and potentially private money targeted toward broadband, Schaffer said it is time to plan carefully.
“It’s time to think broadly about what we want to do, why we want to do it and how we make [broadband] future-proof,” she said.