Ya know, if my state got a grant for $24.5 million to build out broadband networks in underserved areas, I would jump for joy. Not only does that mean jobs in the short term, but economic development in the long term. So why did Maine State Senator Lisa Marrache (D-Waterville) and Maine State Rep. Stacey Fitts (R-Pittsfield) introduce legislation to keep the University of Maine from participating in the $30 million partnership project with Great Works Internet (also based in Maine)? is it a coincidence that Fairpoint — that champion of rural private sector broadband which has proved the power of the private sector by defaulting on debt, declaring bankruptcy, and pissing off regulators — has been busy challenging this application and has been chanting the usual slogans about how the public sector should (a) keep out of broadband, and (b) hurry up with my Universal Service Fund bailout?
Without knowing whether Marrache and Fitts are direct recipients of Fairpoint’s campaign contribution largess, or merely ideologically sympatico with the notion of keeping federal money for job creation out of Maine and telling their constituents that they’ll get broadband when Fairpoint is good and ready to give it to them, this little incident provides a valuable reminder why Congress ought to finally pass the Community Broadband Act, which would prevent states legislatures from shafting their citizens in the name of ideological purity.
More below . . .
Last month, NTIA gave Great Works internet in Maine $24.5 million toward a fiber optic network. The grant is a classic public/private partnership for a middle mile project that includes, among others the University of Maine.
Fairpoint, Maine’s primary rural LEC, has objected to this “undue competition with the private sector.” This would be funny, given how Fairpoint has become the poster child for the failure of the private sector to deliver on its big promises to rural communities. But Fairpoint’s talking points have ended up in legislation filed by Maine State Senator Lisa Marrache (D-Waterville) and Maine State Rep. Stacey Fitts (R-Pittsfield). Despite the fact that middle mile build out will help companies like Fairpoint (while also helping their competitors), we get the usual ideologically-driven nonsense about how the public sector ought to know its place and leave the driving to the all-knowing and super-efficient firms like Fairpoint — assuming Maine’s rural residents like the prospect of waiting for a bankrupt company to satisfy its creditors and bring them broadband.
I would hope that the good folks of Maine would make their feelings on this subject sufficiently clear to prevent other members of the Maine legislature from joining this foolishness — at least if they want to see jobs created from building the network and the economic growth broadband penetration provides. Of more concern is that this sort of response (especially if it succeeds) has the potential to discourage NTIA and RUS from funding projects with a state/local government component. Again, I would hope that NTIA and RUS will continue to evaluate programs on merit and give grants where they will do the most good rather than let a few state reps who would rather collect campaign contributions for themselves than grants for their states scare them off.
More importantly, this should be the wake up call for Congress to finally pass the Community Broadband Act. This piece of legislation goes back to 2006, and has made it out of Committee in the Senate with bipartisan support twice. In the absence of serious threats from state legislatures to pass, it has simply never made it to a full floor vote. But as the Marrache-Fitts-Fairpoint bill in Maine makes clear, it would serve all of us to have this issue cleared up once and for all.
Stay tuned . . . .