New rules proposed by the state’s broadband internet authority would require taxpayer-subsidized broadband projects to be able to provide dramatically faster speeds than the current minimum standard and would greatly increase the portion of the state regarded as inadequately served by broadband.
The ConnectMaine Authority, also known as ConnectME, typically funds broadband infrastructure grants from a relatively small pot – about $750,000 to $1 million annually – that comes from customer fees on landline telephone service. But with a $15 million state bond to dole out and tens of millions of federal broadband infrastructure dollars coming, the authority’s board wanted to ensure taxpayer-supported investment would meet the needs of current and future residents, said ConnectME Executive Director Peggy Schaffer.
“There is more evidence that people are using higher speeds – we felt that if we are using taxpayer money, the basic infrastructure we are putting up is good for another 20 years,” Schaffer said. “We don’t want to come back and build this stuff again.”
Last month, the board voted to make the standard for broadband service 100 megabits per second for both download and upload speeds, 10 times its current “build-to” standard for grant-funded projects. A speed of 100 Mbps is fast enough to download a typical music file in one second, a large PDF document in about 15 seconds, and a 20-minute video in one minute, according to one service provider.
The board’s vote is subject to a 30-day public comment period and a May 13 public hearing before a vote to confirm it later this month.
ConnectME also revised its designation of areas “unserved” by broadband. Unserved areas are currently those that have internet speeds below 25 Mpbs for download and 3 Mpbs for upload. Under the proposed change, an unserved area would be one that had speeds below 50 Mbps of download and 10 Mbps for upload. Downloading is obtaining data from the internet, and uploading is sending data to the internet.
About 11 percent of the state is currently unserved by broadband, according to the authority. It is unclear how many more locations would fall into the “unserved” category if the standard were increased as proposed, but areas with access to cable internet service such as Spectrum or Xfinity would meet the higher standard for service, Schaffer said.
The new broadband designation would require grant-funded projects to have the 100/100 Mpbs capacity, but depending on their service plan, customers might not have access to those speeds. The new standard would not affect privately funded networks.
The change, especially in regard to faster upload speeds, reflects the fact that multiple household members now make heavy use of videoconferencing programs such as Zoom for work, school, medical appointments and socializing – sometimes at the same time. Streaming high-quality video to the internet from home or office requires fast upload speeds.
“Generally, the public just wants it to work,” Schaffer said. “That is what we want to do, to make sure people don’t have the spinning circle of death as they try to connect to the internet, especially on a network the state has partially paid for.”
Many internet service providers already construct, or plan to construct, networks that meet or exceed the authority’s proposed broadband speeds, it said in a memo. Most providers already offer base service plans above the planned “unserved” designation, it added.
The vast majority of the 27 broadband projects ConnectME has funded in the past 15 years have installed fiber-optic cables capable of meeting the proposed standards, it said.
“Not only do we want to increase the standard at the state level, we want the companies to start thinking about how they improve their service on their own and give them an incentive to do so,” Schaffer said.
But designating broadband at faster speeds could open up far more areas of Maine that are considered unserved and have negative consequences, said Benjamin Sanborn, executive director of the Telecommunications Association of Maine, which represents telephone and internet service providers in the state.
“Arguably, there are going to be a whole bunch of areas in the state that will be eligible for funding either from ConnectME or with federal dollars,” Sanborn said. “Our concern with that is that it is going to create a situation of overbuilding existing networks,” while truly underserved areas are left out.
Telecom companies don’t oppose building networks that meet the 100/100 Mpbs standard, he added, but the state should focus on making sure everyone has access to the existing 25/3 Mpbs standard before changing the definition of “unserved.”
“If you keep that as a baseline, then we can bring everyone up to that basic level,” he said.
Others think the current standard is badly obsolete, especially as internet use continues to dominate modern life for many. The average family has 12 connected devices, a number expected to go up to 20 devices in the next four years, according to research from Parks Associates, an internet market research and consulting firm in Addison, Texas.
“Clearly, 25/3 Mpbs isn’t enough to do anything interactive for remote learning or work or anything else,” said Jeff Letourneau, executive director of Network Maine and a ConnectME board member. “Forget about having multiple people in the household trying to do something at the same time.”
Letourneau pushed for the higher standard and now doesn’t believe the authority even needs its lower designation for unserved areas. An expand definition of “unserved” technically opens up more places for potential infrastructure grants, he added. However, ConnectME considers other factors when scoring and awarding grants, so it is unlikely projects in adequately served areas would be funded ahead of places that have no broadband service at all.
“By setting standards artificially low, we have understated the challenge in Maine – we are not being truthful,” Letourneau said. “Most of the projects we have funded in the last four years, the service providers that are building out new infrastructure are doing it with technology that can deliver 10 gigabits per second to a household. All we are asking for is 100 megabits per second.”