Last week, the Energy, Utilities and Technology (EUT) committee voted “ought to pass as amended” on LD 1894, Act To Support Municipal Broadband Infrastructure through Incentives and Competition. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce testified in opposition to the bill at its public hearing in early February. Last week during the work session, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Eloise Vitelli (D-Sagadahoc) released an amendment to LD 1894, which became the committee’s majority report with nine members supporting the amendment, and three opposing.
The Maine State Chamber opposed this original bill citing concerns about municipally-owned broadband networks. The legislation promotes creating consumer-owned water and electric utilities to own and operate broadband networks, moving the operation of these networks out of the hands of the experts. Secondly, this legislation does not encourage public-private partnerships, which is, in the Chamber’s opinion, the best way to expand broadband. There was also nothing to protect against the overbuilding of existing infrastructure and networks. As technology changes, future broadband networks will need the flexibility to adapt to new technologies and infrastructure. Ensuring our broadband infrastructure is “future proof” is critical to its long-term benefits. As we are making investments now, it is critical to still be thinking about the future. In our opinion, the companies that are experts will be best able to adapt to these changes much more efficiently than municipal-owned networks, which will run the risk of having to increase rates to reach the demands.
The amendment released by Sen. Vitelli seeks to improve the bill and address some of the concerns raised by the Maine State Chamber, the Public Advocate’s Office, the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC), and other interested parties and businesses in the telecom industry. To highlight a few points of the amendment, it would require that, if a municipal utility district wanted to own and operate a broadband network, it must register with the PUC before doing so, allowing the PUC to examine whether it is in the best interest for a consumer-owned utility to do this. The amendment would also require rulemaking and changing of a utility charter. The ConnectMaine Authority, in consultation with the Public Utilities Commission and the Office of the Public Advocate, shall develop standard charter provisions that may be utilized by a water district to help it develop a legislative proposal to amend its charter to operate broadband or other Internet access systems or to provide broadband or other Internet access services to the public. Once developed, the authority shall make the standard charter provisions available to the public and may provide assistance to water districts to adapt the standard charter provisions to address the needs of the water district.
The Maine State Chamber appreciates the amendment and feels it makes significant improvements to the initial proposal – however, we still would like some clarification around the municipal gigabit fund to make sure it prioritizes underserved or unserved areas in Maine that desperately need expansion of broadband. We also think public-private partnerships are still the best way to go, and we oppose the amended legislation as it would again promote municipal networks.
As this legislation now moves out of the committee and onto the House and Senate floors for votes, the Maine State Chamber will still attempt to make improvements to the legislation and express our concerns about municipal owned networks. We are willing to work with the sponsor and all other interested parties to find improvements that provide as many Mainers with connectivity to high-speed internet.
The Maine State Chamber has long been a supporter of broadband expansion and investment into Maine. In our 2018 Making Maine Work survey, one of the top issues we heard from businesses in Maine was the need for access to reliable broadband connection. In that same report, the Maine State Chamber called for $100 million of investment in broadband to Maine. We now have $250 million invested into Maine, and we are still committed to expanding broadband access.
For additional information or questions, please contact Ben Lucas, government relations specialist, by calling (207) 623-4568, ext. 111, or by emailing email@example.com.