EUT committee holds public hearing on legislation to pave the way for consumer-owned broadband networks
Last week, the Energy, Utilities, and Technology (EUT) committee held a public hearing on LD 1894, An Act to Support Municipal Broadband Infrastructure through Incentives and Competition. This legislation was introduced by Sen. Eloise Vitelli (D-Sagadahoc) and had several co-sponsors, both House and Senate members of the Democratic Caucus. This was new legislation to the Second Session of the 130th Maine Legislature, making it through Legislative Council in December 2021. We should also note that several days before the public hearing, an amendment was released to the bill.
The amended bill establishes that consumer-owned transmission and distribution utilities, consumer-owned water utilities, and regional municipal utility districts may own, lease, construct, maintain, and operate broadband or other Internet access systems over their own utility delivery system infrastructure. The amended bill provides that the Public Utilities Commission shall adopt rules governing the provision of services. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce testified in strong opposition to LD 1894.
There are several concerns with the amended version of the bill. The first being that this legislation promotes creating consumer-owned water and electric utilities to own and operate broadband networks. This takes the operation of the networks out of the hands of the experts. That means this legislation does not encourage public-private partnerships, which in the Chamber’s opinion, would be the best way to expand broadband. The encouragement of public-private partnerships was echoed several times throughout the public hearing.
Another concern is, as technology changes, broadband networks will need the flexibility to adapt to new technologies and infrastructure. Making sure our broadband infrastructure is “future proof” is critical to the 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.
Some of our final concerns with LD 1894 as drafted include that there is nothing to protect against the over-building of infrastructure and networks that currently exist. We also believe that the state should not be directing funds to areas where high-speed data is already available by encouraging so called “open access networks.” The Maine Connectivity Authority (MCA) was recently established to help make sure broadband reaches the unserved areas of our state. LD 1894 would undermine the goal of the MCA and puts at risk our state and federal dollars.
The Chamber’s concerns were echoed by several others such as Charter Communications, Comcast, and Consolidated Communications, all of which testified in opposition during the public hearing. There were a number of stakeholders testifying “neither for nor against” LD 1894, but they also raised several concerns about the legislation as drafted. This includes the Maine Municipal Association, GWI, the Public Advocate, the Public Utilities Commission, ConnectME Authority, and the Maine Connectivity Authority, just to name a few.
As LD 1894 moves forward in the legislative process, the Maine State Chamber will continue to lead and be in strong opposition to LD 1894 – making our position known to the committee, the full legislature, and the administration. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce has long been a supporter of broadband expansion and investment into Maine. In our 2018 Making Maine Work survey, one of the top issues Maine businesses need is access to reliable broadband connection. In that same report, the Chamber called for $100 million of investment in broadband to Maine. We now have $250 million invested into Maine, and the Chamber is still committed to expanding broadband access. Unfortunately, we do not believe LD 1894 would do that.
As we learn more information about the future of this legislation, we will keep our members posted. Until then, we wanted to highlight the public hearing and put LD 1894 on your radar as this legislation is very problematic. For additional information or questions, please contact Ben Lucas by calling (207) 623-4568, ext. 111, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.