During the special session of the legislature in August 2019, Republicans voted against a bond proposal to fund the expansion of broadband Internet access. They did so, not because they oppose the idea of expanding broadband, but because they believe that major government investments must be made in ways that are most effective.
Currently, Maine’s broadband expansion program would use funds to award grants to applicants who seek out money to expand broadband in their area. While this is a way to spend money and create broadband access, it is not the most effective way to get the most we can out of the dollars we spend. A passive approach that involves sitting back and waiting for communities to apply for grants, hoping the neediest communities apply first, is wasteful and ineffective.
The communities most in need of broadband upgrades are often those with limited staff at the local government level. These communities are the least likely to properly navigate the planning and application processes that lead to funding. They are less likely to identify and partner with entities that can help them maximize their efforts.
Instead, state government needs to take an active approach by identifying the areas most in need of broadband and then reaching out to them with guidance and assistance.
The Department of Transportation has a 3-year work plan. It explains which roads will get work done, where, why, what kind of work, and how much it will cost. All of it based on identified needs and priorities. This is the kind of plan we need for our broadband efforts.
This plan should include maps showing population, current broadband reach, shaded areas of greatest need along with the communities and service providers in these areas. State government should then reach out to these communities and help them get the resources required to assess their needs and find and fund solutions. As they do, the areas of the map showing the most need will slowly disappear as the plan moves through the areas from neediest to least in need.
Further, the plan should evaluate whether the technology we are about to invest in is about to become obsolete in favor of some new method of delivering data and information.
Making a major investment in broadband access to rural areas of Maine is a worthwhile goal. If done properly, it can have a positive impact on our state’s economy. If done improperly, it could become a waste of millions of taxpayers’ dollars. Let’s get this right. Plan first, then funding.