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'Connect ME' is Maine's Mantra For 90 Percent Broadband by 2010

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Broadband Census Maine

This is the 14th of a series of articles surveying the state of broadband, and broadband data, within each of the United States and its territories. Among the next profiles: Nebraska, South Carolina and Virginia.

September 21 – When it comes to broadband, the state of Maine is doing a lot with a little in order to keep a big promise.

In 2005, Gov. John Baldacci announced the Connect Maine initiative and said that by focused on investing in broadband infrastructure in unserved areas, it would “ensure that 90% of Maine communities have broadband access by 2010.”

When Gov. Baldacci made this promise in 2005, the state pieced together data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the state Public Utilities Commission and estimated that, only 74% of Maine households had access to broadband.

The Connect ME authority is still the state’s smallest agency. It continues to be tasked with connecting the rest of Maine where, according to Connect ME Executive Director Phillip Lindley, “the private sector won’t get the job done.”

Despite the similar name, Connect ME has no connection to Connect Kentucky or its parent Connected Nation, Inc., the non-profit organization that had its start in Kentucky.

Connect ME obtains funding from a special telecommunications tax on communications providers’ in-state retail revenue, as well as the state’s share of the recent merger between Fairpoint Communications and Verizon Communications. Connect ME partners with towns, non-profits, and the private sector to push broadband into more parts of the state.

Shortly after the governor’s 2005 announcement, Connect ME set out to determine what parts of the state were completely unserved by broadband providers in 2006.

The state sought to improve on Federal Communications Commission data for the state that records service only at the ZIP code level. Connect ME was concerned about the possibility of households lacking access to broadband within ZIP code identified by FCC data as offering service.

Connect ME struggled to collect information from providers at the most granular level. It produced a map in 2006 that Lindley characterizes as a “fair interpretation” of broadband coverage. The map estimated that 26% of Maine lacked broadband access, compared to FCC data that states that 11% of Maine ZIP codes were unserved.

Despite the difficulties in determining where exactly broadband is and where it isn’t – a problem common to many organization seeking to collect broadband data, including BroadbandCensus.com – Connect ME proceeded with grant funding for unserved areas. By the close of 2007, it had distributed nearly $800,000 to support more than $1.7 million in total project investments.

Lindley said most of the funds go to small wireless operators who are “operating day-by-day.”

“Connect ME can add just enough money so that these providers can make a substantial investment and a substantial improvement in reaching customers,” Lindley said.

The project was supplemented by the state’s share of merger revenue in its second year. On September 5, Connect ME announced a second round of grants totaling $1.75 million. It estimated that service providers had added 12,500 residents to Maine’s broadband network.

Officials in Maine say they understand the impact broadband could have on the state and have made connecting citizens to high-speed internet services a priority.

In addition to the work of Connect ME, the Rural Western and Central Maine Broadband Initiative has received $3.6 million in funding from the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program.

“We believe broadband is a necessity,” says Lindley, “especially in rural areas, and it helps the entire state by reducing pollution, traffic, allowing telecommuting and better child care, and providing access to additional government services.”

To close in on its broadband goal of 90% coverage by 2010, approximately 40,000 households needed to be reached. Connect ME estimates that it will have connected about 17,000 households through its two rounds of grants.

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