Closing the digital divide will take a lot of work in the years ahead, but Maine is looking down the road to universal high-speed connectivity for nearly all of its households sooner rather than later.
“When we’re done with the BEAD money, which I don’t know when that will be – three years, four years – everybody in the state is going to have a connection,” said Peggy Schaffer, Executive Director of the ConnectMaine Authority. “We’re looking at between $200 and $300 million. For us that’s a lot of money. We did a very back-of-the-envelope thing a couple of years ago and we estimated building out to everybody in the state who is unserved or underserved; it would cost about $600 million.”
Between Maine capital projects money, BEAD money and required matching money, available ARPA money, and other funding sources, “We are pretty sure this is going to do it for us,” Schaffer said. “We’re hopeful this is going to do it for us, or at least 97 or 98 percent.”
ConnectMaine, a public instrumentality of the Maine State government tasked with facilitating universal broadband access to all Maine households and businesses, has taken a very proactive stance to defining broadband, with unserved defined as 50 Mbps/10 Mbps or less and underserved as any locations that have less than 100 Mbps symmetrical service.
Among the locations which will get service are Maine’s offshore islands. “The islands are the most aggressive in getting funding,’ said Schaffer. “There are only a couple of islands left that don’t have fiber. They knew a long time ago if they didn’t have fiber to the home they were going to continue to lose people.” The island of Islesboro, about a mile off the coastline, put in fiber six years ago. “Within the first year, they had six new families move to the island,” Schaffer said. “That’s huge for an island of 560 people for six new families to move in.”
Schaffer expects some very remote locations, “those on mountain tops, two miles down a dirt road,” to be served by wireless or satellite but ConnectMaine has been planning for years to connect 15,000 households with fiber and she says the cost per home passed, including fiber drop, will average around $2,000.
Community engagement and quality high-resolution mapping data are two key factors ConnectMaine is using to figure out how to hook up everyone. “We have over 300 communities engaged in a planning process and it has helped us in multiple ways,” Schaffer said. “It helps us with better data and it also shows internet service providers there’s an interest in those communities and they can actually make a business case for building there. Finally, it allows those communities to make a choice of what kind of service they want and who they want to own it.”
To hear Peggy Schaffer discuss Maine’s master universal connection plan and the years of invested strategy to get to today, listen to the full Fiber for Breakfast podcast.