WILTON — In hopes of increasing broadband internet connections in rural Maine, members of two organizations informed community leaders in Franklin County how to follow a state action plan to secure funding when $600 million from the federal government becomes available.
Part of a traveling informational tour hosted by the ConnectME Authority — an organization aimed at making broadband available to all Maine households — and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the organizations held a Franklin County-specific meeting Thursday at the Comfort Inn.
Heather Johnson, director of ConnectME, said it was important to look at broadband as akin to infrastructure, with investment needs of its own.
“It has a long-term implication, and it’s an investment and not an expense,” she said.
There are 46,000 households in the state that don’t have a basic broadband connection of 10/1 megabits per second, Johnson said.
The state’s five-year plan with a minimum commitment of $40 million from the state this year, has several components to connect residents to the internet, but likely eligible areas might not be shown on maps, she said. Areas always can be tested, because data changes daily, she said.
A field test can determine whether a connection exists in an area or whether a plan to connect to a network is needed. Collaboration with other entities is key, especially when it comes to funding.
Finding several funders to bring broadband to areas such as Franklin County is a challenge, Johnson said. Grants and loans are available, but towns and communities need to be able to leverage their positions. No one wants to be the only funder, she said, which can be expensive, so collaborations among local businesses, nonprofits, governments and others must be built “to create the biggest impact” with the least funding needed from individual funders.
“Our job is to help facilitate the discussion,” she said. “How do we make the best projects we can and get the communities as far as we can?”
While ConnectME provides more technical assistance, the USDA helps bring funding to the table.
Bob Nadeau, of the USDA, said Franklin County attendees were ahead of the curve, in that they had done a considerable amount of planning and set priorities for their broadband needs.
Three funding programs exist, with a fourth “mystery” program looming, Nadeau said. The first is called Community Connect, which he said goes to communities in need. These are towns with fewer than 20,000 people who are “woefully underserved” when it comes to internet connectivity. The minimum grant in this program is $100,000, while the most is $3 million. These are operated through a funding window, which closed May 14, so Franklin County would have to wait until next year to tap that source.
The next program, he said, is a loan program, which has the same population requirement as Community Connect but a less stringent connectivity requirement. The minimum is also $100,000, but loans can range up to $25 million. Interest rates on the loans are “pretty affordable,” he said, with terms lasting the lifetime of the equipment, which can be close to 20 years. The loan program accepts rolling applications throughout the year.
The third program funds distance learning, where businesses and medical practices agree to provide long-distance training and education. Those grants have a window that closed June 4.
The “mystery” program is a new, $600 million allocation created by the federal government. It is a mystery because it’s not clear how allocating this money will work, and Nadeau said some kind of regulation process is needed.
He said the program will go through a federal register process, which will provide time for public comment to be put into the record. He urged those in attendance to make sure their thoughts were heard if they wanted to have a chance at taking advantage of the program.
Johnson said there aren’t a lot of opportunities to get a bite at this new $600 million chance, so communities and the organizations and individuals who belong to them need to “find out how we have the best leverage” to make sure they don’t miss out on the program and instead make sure Maine gets its share. A lot of times, there is a 60-day window once fund allocations have been announced, she said, so it is important to do as much work ahead of time and plan the process that will land the funding necessary to build the system that will serve the communities’ broadband needs.
“One of the pivotal parts is how do we show a really strong set of projects?” Johnson said, adding, “There isn’t a cookie-cutter answer to any of this.”
She urged several communities to work together, since each community can “bring something different to the table for leverage.”
Johnson is focused on getting communities ready ahead of the allocation of $600 million, so that when towns encounter difficulties, such as going through the process of calling a special town meeting to accept funding, they will have a plan that will transform the vision of broadband into the reality of a network with an adequate amount of money.