Southport voters have estimates on how much it will cost to build their own broadband network or connect underserved residents when they hold a town meeting on Tuesday.
They do not know exactly how much has been spent to rally opposition against it.
It is an example of how big-campaign tactics are coming to smaller communities that are looking to develop their own broadband systems. The archipelago town of just 600 people off Boothbay Harbor has seen mailers and digital ads linked to the incumbent internet provider and allies.
Spending on the issue does not have to be disclosed because of a campaign finance loophole. It is likely to be a continuing trend as more communities consider whether to build their own broadband networks with plentiful money from state and federal programs. Providers, led here by Spectrum, are looking to cut off the local competition.
A $2 million project to create a town-owned fiber network is at stake. Voters on Tuesday will vote to either allow the town to continue pursuing the project authorized last year or halt it after a group of voters who have questioned the project rallied a petition. They could approve a second option to pay a provider to connect underserved residents to high-speed internet.
The town does not fall under Maine campaign finance law requiring organizations trying to influence elections or ballot questions in municipalities with 15,000 or more residents must report their spending. It has also not opted into the law, meaning residents cannot know how much a business-aligned group is spending to defeat the project.
“My biggest concern is when there are corporate interests associated with some of these efforts that stand to benefit financially and that can be obscured through another entity,” said Nick Battista, the chief policy officer on broadband for the Island Institute, a nonprofit that has been following the discussions in Southport.
A flier from the Alliance for Quality Broadband Maine sent to voters last Wednesday said the town’s project was “risky” and could affect spending on core local services like road maintenance. It also noted an “existing provider” has offered to connect the 10 percent of residents who do not have high-speed internet.
It does not mention that one of the members of the alliance’s national group is Spectrum parent company Charter Communications, who has been active in lobbying against these projects and would benefit from funding under the competing question on the meeting warrant.
Other partners in the group include the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the conservative Maine Policy Institute. A Charter spokesperson declined to comment on its involvement in the campaign. An email to the alliance’s Maine chapter was not returned.
The coalition is a group of organizations concerned about state and federal spending on broadband and how it will affect taxpayers, said Jacob Posik, a spokesperson for the Maine Policy Institute. His organization has not spent on the Southport referendum, he said.
The tactics have already paid off in other referendums. A spin-off Facebook page led by the alliance called “Protect Readfield” spent nearly $14,000 on ads from March 27 to June 24, according to site disclosures. Voters there ultimately defeated a town-owned broadband network on June 14. The group spent just $356 in June ads on the Southport project.
Nancy Smith, the executive director of GrowSmart Maine, said she was surprised by the lack of disclosure required on these efforts, saying it could give voters clues about a group’s motivations. She said she intends to explore introducing legislation to require disclosure in towns.
“With votes on any level, public disclosure is essential,” she said.