Government Technology, June 25, 2015
The state of Maine is firmly committed to municipal broadband — it just doesn’t want to pay for it.
If Maine Gov. Paul LePage signs LD1185, the state will create a new fund that would endeavor to provide residents with a wider array of high-speed broadband providers in the coming years. The fund would offer grants to research how municipalities might build open-access gigabit broadband networks, expanding competition in a rural state dominated by Time Warner Cable and Fairpoint Communications. When the bill was introduced, the fund was $12 million, then reduced to $6 million; now the fund is a $500 placeholder that Congress will revisit next year.
When or how the fund would contain more than $500 is unknown, but it’s something the state Legislature will look at next year, Leahy said.
Chris Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance said that what the state is doing is smart, though the lack of funding is disappointing.
“The thing that I found really exciting is it’s only for municipalities or nonprofit types of approaches and it’s requiring open access, and I think that’s a real smart thing for states to do,” Mitchell said. “Because I think local governments can be trusted to maintain that sort of open-access approach for a very long time, where I think the private sector might decide to go back to a monopoly model.”
In an open-access model, a network’s physical infrastructure is available for rent to any company that wants to sell services to the public, allowing for more competition than if each provider is required to build their own network to compete.
“I like that it’s open access because in most of Maine, if you don’t build competition into your system, there won’t be competition,” Mitchell said. “Either one of the existing incumbents will stick around or the city will build a system, but people aren’t going to have a real robust choice unless you build a network that allows multiple providers to do it, and there’s one company already operating in Maine called GWI that does a really good job.”
It’s frustrating to see such a promising piece of legislation relegated into uncertainty, Mitchell said.
“It still sets an interesting precedent in terms of targeting municipal open-access approaches, which I think is valuable, although clearly much less so if they’re not going to put any money into it,” he said. “Just about every elected official wants to vote and tell their constituents that they supported better broadband, but they really don’t want to upset the Fairpoint and Time Warner Cable lobbyists, so they’ve kind of done both. The lobbyists are happy because there’s no real funding, but a lot of people will go home and say, ‘Well, I voted for better broadband for the state.’”