Maine’s rural landscape a catalyst for broadband deployment

Maine isn’t nearly as far removed as say, Alaska, but it still must cope with broadband challenges stemming from its remote location.

Andrew Butcher, president of the Maine Connectivity Authority (MCA), named two key hurdles to broadband access in Maine: the sheer rurality of the state and, on a related note, community capacity to drive demand.

“There’s a significant amount of space and not enough humans,” he told Fierce. “We have the highest concentration of rural population in the country, meaning that the majority of people in the state live in very rural areas.”

The state consists of many rural towns partly due to Maine’s distinct geography, which Butcher noted is “very mountainous and [has] a very jagged coastline.” Because of the terrain, he said the state government won’t really be able to fund “any level of subterranean infrastructure.”

So, most broadband infrastructure will likely be built aerially, or in some cases, through an underwater cable to connect islands.

“We have a pretty significant amount of unbridged islands with year-round residents,” said Butcher. “And we have a very mountainous and rocky terrain. So, that alone increases our costs pretty significantly and also increases the insurance and liability challenges associated with it as well.”

He went on to say Maine is focused on a “community-driven approach” for broadband. But population density can hinder private investment.

“Where there are equipped and engaged communities in a broadband planning process, they have the ability to drive that process and represent a real economic indicator in the form of demand,” Butcher said. “And that demand, for broadband, takes shape as a far as a potential take rate.”

Maine’s governor has pledged to deliver broadband to everyone who wants it by the end of 2024. For the MCA, that goal is centered around the most unconnected portions of the state.“We believe that to be about 5% of the state’s serviceable locations,” said Butcher. “Our efforts will focus on the most critical and unconnected as a part of the governor’s pledge, and that will allow for us to then focus on broadband options for the unserved and underserved from there.”

As far as how confident the state is in achieving that goal, Butcher noted “it’s a bold and ambitious commitment. But bold and ambitious things don’t happen unless we say we will.”

Fiber-focused but evaluating different technologies

Most of the MCA’s grant funding requires technology that “has a performance standard that fiber is best suited to serve.” That said, Butcher noted his office is also supporting network enhancements for cable operators, such as line extensions, and is evaluating fixed wireless solutions for “extremely remote and rural areas.”

“To address some of the governor’s goal, we may need to be able to apply short-term wireless solutions as those places get into a pathway for a fixed fiber solution,” he said, noting the MCA is trialing such technology through its Jumpstart Connectivity Initiative.

Speaking more broadly on broadband investment, Butcher broke down Maine’s funding into a few primary categories. The Connect the Ready Program, which is a community-driven public-private partnership initiative, “constitutes the majority of our infrastructure investments to date.”

The MCA is also geared towards investments in community and regional capacity to help communities get ready for deployments, as well as programs that leverage existing infrastructure for line extensions and enable middle-mile investments.

One of the largest grant awards came in February, when the MCA doled out $8.8 million to a cluster of communities in the central part of the state: Skowhegan, Canaan, Cornville and parts of Madison. Local officials are working with the state and Consolidated Communications to support the project.

Butcher pointed out the Skowhegan area is a “relatively large population center but has a pretty significant amount of unserved locations.”

“More dense for Maine is highly rural for pretty much everywhere else,” he added.

Regional challenges

The state’s largest incumbent ISPs are Consolidated Communications and Charter Communications(which recently acquired regional provider Bee Line Cable). But Butcher said Maine has a robust network of small to mid-sized ISPs. He estimated there are roughly 14 different ISPs in the state, many of which have “geographic concentrations.”

While Maine doesn’t have any technical cooperatives that provide broadband, it does have a handful of broadband utility districts (BUDs), which are interlocal agreements between multiple municipalities.

Butcher pointed out only one BUD – Downeast Broadband Utility – is really operational in Maine, but others are “in development.” The MCA has provided funding for the utility’s expansion into three different municipalities and one tribal reservation.

Maine’s municipal approach is similar to Vermont’s communications union districts, which in that state are the primary vehicle for bolstering universal broadband access. However, Butcher pointed out some “structural differences” that make it difficult for Maine to use that same model.

“We are a much bigger state with about the same population size,” he said. “There’s also a pretty significant ‘home rule’ policy in Maine that makes some of that regional cooperation a little bit more challenging.” Home rule essentially means every municipality takes precedent over a regional or state policy.

Takeaways for BEAD

Maine has estimated it will receive between $230-$260 million from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program.

With BEAD, Butcher noted the federal government has recognized states require a certain level of leadership to deploy funds, so he would encourage the government to “reiterate that focus.”

“There’s a difference between the BEAD program and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program. BEAD and the Capital Projects Fund have effectively said that states are in the driver’s seat to determine how to deploy the funds,” he said. “Whereas the RDOF program kind of landed on our shores and has created a pretty significant amount of ‘Swiss cheese’ to work around.”

Another aspect about BEAD that the federal government should be mindful of, Butcher added, is that the program has significant taxable considerations for sub-grantees. A group of congressional members in February reintroduced legislation that aims to address that issue.

“Currently, a grant award to a company would be regarded as taxable income,” he explained. “So, the federal government would be taxing an ISP so that they are paying the federal government back. That seems like a bit of an oversight and a fixable problem.”

The final point Butcher made was that as the government fleshes out the national broadband map, “we shouldn’t let private internet service providers’ marketed data serve as a proxy for the truth.”

“Just because a company markets that they provide service at a certain level and a place, that shouldn’t be allowable as a truth statement in their data filing,” he said.