More than 900 schools and libraries across the state depend on funding from the Maine School and Library Network to help pay for high-speed broadband connections. But the revenues that make that possible are decreasing every year.
Six years ago, the fee on charges for in-state telephone calls brought in just over $4 million to help pay for the fiber connections that are the backbone of the broadband system. But by last year, those revenues had dropped to under $3 million, as more and more Mainers have moved from making calls to texting or other forms of cellphone messaging.
Democratic state Rep. Marty Grohman of Biddeford has introduced legislation that would boost the fee, and bring revenues back up to $4.2 million.
“Let’s shore it up in the short term, and then I realize there are a variety of concerns about how this funding is done. We absolutely want to do it equitably. I think if we can get all the stakeholders in the room we can work it out,” he says.
Grohman says he is committed to working on a funding stream that is fair but also provides enough money to maintain a system that he says is particularly important to rural Maine communities.
“It’s something we tend to take for granted, but it brings high speed — and I mean super high speed, including fast uploads — to schools and libraries all over Maine, including rural Maine,” he says.
Grohman says in some rural areas of the state the only really high-speed connections are at local schools and libraries.
Bryce Cundick, president of the Maine Library Association, says as state funding has decreased, local schools and libraries have had to seek local funding, usually the property tax, to keep the high-speed connections.
“For example here in Farmington, they just came through — they needed a $40,000 increase in their budget and that is huge, it’s just not sustainable,” he says.
In 2015, Cundick says, schools and libraries started to pick up part of the costs, doling out $120,000. This year it will be double that, at more than $250,000, and without legislative action more of the cost will get shifted.
Cundick is worried that the state will lose federal funds if local towns stop contributing to the cost of the broadband connection. Currently, 60 percent of that cost is picked up by the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program, but that has to be matched at 40 percent by state or local funds.
“If our share diminishes, then so will the federal share,” says state Rep. Seth Berry, a Democrat from Bowdoinham who co-chairs the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, which will consider Grohman’s legislation. “We need our schools and libraries to be modern. In my own community there are many folks who go down to the library and either sit outside in their cars or go inside in order to access internet because they don’t have adequate access at home.”
Berry says he would like to see the committee try to work out a long-term funding plan this session working with all the stakeholders. One of those stakeholders is Public Advocate Tim Schneider, who says says the small monthly fee to provide broadband access in rural areas of the state is needed, at least until new technologies are developed to bring affordable broadband to those areas.
“Until we solve that problem, these high-speed connections at schools and libraries are the best broadband that’s available in many communities. It’s really the only way that folks have access to broadband in a lot of parts of rural Maine,” he says.
Schneider says the long-term goal for the state is to provide high-speed broadband at affordable rates throughout Maine.