Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the creation of a new public authority to coordinate investing tens of millions of dollars in federal funding for broadband infrastructure in Maine.

Both houses of the Legislature passed L.D. 1484, establishing the Maine Connectivity Authority with a mandate to expand universal high-speed internet access and telecommunications infrastructure across the state.

Gov. Janet Mills supported the measure and this spring called the proposal one of the most important issues facing the Legislature this year.

“I would like to thank the (Portland Regional) Chamber of Commerce for (its) recent advocacy on behalf of my bipartisan bill – which passed in both the House and Senate unanimously on initial votes – to create the Maine Connectivity Authority to expand access to broadband. I look forward to signing that legislation when it reaches my desk,” Mills said Wednesday morning during an Eggs and Issues event hosted by the chamber.

At least 83,000 Maine homes do not have adequate access to high-speed internet, almost 15 percent of the households in the state. The ConnectMaine Authority, a small agency tasked with improving broadband access, has provided $750,000 to $1 million a year in grants for a total of 27 projects since it was established 15 years ago.

Bill sponsor Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, has said the amount of new federal money for broadband coming to Maine means the state needs a bigger, more robust body to coordinate and invest in broadband projects.

Authority officials will be responsible for directing a $15 million state broadband bond and up to $129 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding for internet infrastructure. The amount available to support broadband expansion is unprecedented, but less than one-third of the state’s estimated need of $600 million.

The new authority would have the ability to borrow money, negotiate contracts with private internet providers, own infrastructure and provide grants to companies and communities.

High-speed internet service has been regarded as critical to the state’s economic success, especially in underserved rural areas. The coronavirus pandemic, which drove workplaces, commerce, education and healthcare online, highlighted deficiencies in some Maine communities.

“The pandemic has underscored the disparities of who gets to communicate and who doesn’t,” Bennett said in April testimony on the bill.

“Nobody should be left behind in the digital age,” he added. “This includes small businesspeople trying to reach customers, students struggling to learn remotely, rural patients pursuing state-of-the-art telehealth options, and older people trying to keep in touch with family during the pandemic.”

Bennett did not respond to questions about the bill sent via email Wednesday.

The authority would have a seven-member board of directors appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature. It is directed to deliver a report to the Legislature in 2030 describing whether it has fulfilled its intended purpose, needs more time or should be disbanded.

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