Gov. Janet Mills arrives to swear in the new Legislature on Dec. 7, 2022, in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

WATERVILLE, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills, along with state and federal officials, is expected to announce a $5 million award that will be used for high-speed internet access throughout Maine.

Mills, Maine Connectivity Authority and National Telecommunications and Information Administration officials are scheduled to make the announcement at 11 a.m. on Thursday at Thomas College in Waterville.

Maine has long struggled with reliable internet access, particularly in its rural communities. The COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted the need for affordable broadband when online schooling, remote work and telehealth sessions became essential. Many households remain without broadband despite the state’s efforts to address the issue.

The $5 million is just one piece of roughly $250 million that the federal government will likely award to Maine for broadband, according to Maine Connectivity Authority officials.

The $5 million award, which will flow through the connectivity authority, kicks off the process of creating a broadband action plan that will dictate how the total funds are spent over the next five years, said Brian Allenby, spokesperson for the connectivity authority.

For example, funds could be used to expand networks or build new ones, he said. The connectivity authority is also focused on digital equity and getting people the devices and skills they need to take advantage of services.

“Device lending programs could be something we explore,” he said. “Where are the digital hubs that can help people develop digital literacy skills?”

It’s rare for federal officials to visit Maine for such an announcement, Allenby said, and this will give stakeholders at various levels a chance to weigh in on the future of broadband in the state.

The millions of dollars come from the federal government’s BEAD — or Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment — program that was created and funded by the bipartisan infrastructure law. It’s providing billions of dollars to states to expand high-speed internet access.

Established in 2021, the connectivity authority is tasked with achieving universal access to affordable, high-speed broadband in Maine. Through this process, it will spend months designing a plan that will be submitted to the federal government in the summer.

The process includes data collection and research that identifies unserved and underserved locations, surveys in those communities to better understand barriers, communications support and more, according to information from the office of Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who said internet access is critical to the vitality of rural communities.

Collins and independent Sen. Angus King both worked to negotiate and pass the bipartisan infrastructure law.

King noted that broadband access is essential for small businesses, telehealth patients, families and students in rural and urban areas, and pledged to continue advocating for  programs that close the digital divide.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, officials will recognize regional and tribal organizations receiving 26 awards that total $4 million. The funds are meant to support community-driven broadband solutions that grow the number of partners thinking about digital equity and help communities better align with each other and the state, according to the connectivity authority.

Along with Mills, Andrew Butcher, president of Maine Connectivity Authority, and Alan Davidson, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and NTIA administrator, will speak at Thursday’s event.