J Craig Anderson
Starting in January 2020, the ConnectME Authority will impose a 10-cent monthly surcharge on every wired phone line in Maine to help fund broadband expansion projects in the state. The surcharge, approved by the Legislature as part of Maine’s most recent biennial budget, will be used to facilitate broadband expansion projects in the state in 2020 and beyond.
Many rural communities in Maine have been waiting decades for the major internet service providers to bring broadband service to their areas, a situation exacerbated by the state having the second slowest internet speeds in the country. The lack of broadband is a deterrent to would-be residents and businesses, and it thwarts local efforts at economic development. It also deprives existing residents of opportunities for entertainment, education, employment, and digital health services.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Angus King (I-ME) have joined a bipartisan group urging the Department of Agriculture to direct funding for broadband internet expansion to high-need rural areas. They urged the USDA to set aside part of a $600 million rural broadband fund for “geographically challenged” areas. They cited a Federal Communications Commission statistic that of the 24 million US households that do not have reliable, affordable, high-speed internet service, 80 percent are in rural areas. In addition to Sens. Collins and King, the letter was signed by Sens.
Cumberland County (Maine) is in the process of creating a playbook that communities could use to develop their own municipal broadband internet networks. The county issued a request for proposals for a community broadband study that would cost up to $25,000, funded by a federal Community Development Block Grant.
If Internet service providers are allowed to speed up, slow down or block various Web-based services to serve their own interests, it will have a chilling effect on innovation, investment and startup activity in Maine and elsewhere, said a panel of experts including Sen Angus King (I-ME) who spoke in Portland.
The issue of equal treatment by Internet providers such as cable companies is known as “net neutrality.” It has become a topic of heated debate in recent months because the Federal Communications Commission is considering rule changes that would let Internet providers create a tiered environment in which web-based companies could pay a premium to obtain a speed advantage over their competitors.
Dispensing with net neutrality could result in the “creation of fast and slow lanes on the Internet,” said panelist Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, and an advocate for media and Internet freedom. That would hurt small startups and give cable companies an unfair competitive advantage over content providers that do not own their own delivery infrastructure, he said. A tiered system in which companies pay extra to have their content delivered more quickly to consumers would create strong financial incentives for Internet providers to constrict speeds for those unwilling or unable to pay for preferential treatment, said Aaron.