A worker with Houlton-based Pioneer Broadband helps install fiberoptic internet service. (Courtesy of Pioneer Broadband)

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What we’re watching today

Top Democrats have lined up behind a measure incentivizing locally owned broadband systems battling in some areas with big providers. Just two years ago, we were writing stories like this about how a $600 million estimated cost and lack of rural buy-in was challenging a state goal of expanding high-speed internet to 95 percent of Mainers. 

It now feels like a gold rush on that front, with federal aid on track to send a majority of that total to the state, which does not include $500 million in general-purpose aid to local governments. That is prompting an interesting chess match between big internet service providers like Spectrum and an emerging class of community-owned utilities that own the wires.

One good example of the coming battle is in Washington County, where Calais and Baileyville started a utility beginning to offer lightning-fast speeds. After their work began, Spectrum reached an agreement to build a fiber network in neighboring Robbinston, which had never even had cable service. While the big providers are actively opposing some local expansions, competition is lifting many boats.

The debate is around whether cities and towns should continue entrusting service to companies that have at times ignored rural areas or assume the risk of building and maintaining their own systems. Hampden turned down a community-owned utility last year, but some there have credited that bid to a later service expansion.

Top legislative Democrats have looked to aid the local networks. That is continuing in 2022 with a measure from Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, to establish a fund that would give priority to projects from those providers and also allow other utilities to operate broadband systems. Lawmakers’ ultimate decision in the face of likely opposition from bigger providers could be a sign of where we are headed.

What we’re reading

— Despite a strong list of bipartisan sponsors, Gov. Janet Mills’ utility accountability push is going to need more work to unite disparate factions in the Legislature. Critics of Central Maine Power Co. say it may not be enough to incentivize better performance, while some who have been more aligned with the utility want more information and are skeptical of the narrow pathway it leaves for establishing a consumer-owned utility in Maine.

— Former state Sen. Tom Saviello, the most prominent politician who was publicly considering a run against Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage, said he would not run as an independent in 2022. (This was the reaction from Jason Savage, the Maine Republican Party’s executive director.) The race between two known quantities leaves a difficult environment for a third candidate. If Maine has a two-way gubernatorial race in November, it would be the first since 1982 in the independent-friendly state.

— The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is ending contact tracing efforts that have been rendered less effective by the super-contagious omicron variant. The recent COVID-19 surge driven by that strain looks to be waning here on the heels of a similar decline across the rest of the state, according to recent hospitalization data.

Follow along today

9 a.m. Vitelli’s broadband bill will have a public hearing before the utilities committee. Watch here.

— The Maine Board of Environmental Protection will hold a hearing on rulemaking for a bill passed last year that strengthens state regulation of large, above-ground petroleum tanks, including those in South Portland and Searsport. Watch here. 

10 a.m. The Legislature’s health committee will work on several bills, including one aimed at expanding MaineCare to every resident of the state and will hear a bill later in the day that would restore $5 million annually to a tobacco prevention program. Watch here. 

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...