The ConnectMaine Authority is changing its grantmaking approach and criteria for broadband projects to administer larger amounts of funds, including those from the state bond passed in 2020. For four months, ConnectMaine actively solicited input on making these changes. The broadband infrastructure grants program materials were drafted and shared at the January meeting. A committee of ConnectMaine Authority members finalized draft materials. At the February meeting, the ConnectMaine Authority opened application windows infrastructure grants for Community-Driven Broadband Projects and Provider Expansion Projects.
Before the next application window for infrastructure grants closes, ConnectMaine anticipates hosting a workshop with potential applicants. This will be a deeper dive into the infrastructure grants program, and as such is intended for those who have applied in the recent past or who have a project ready for the application before July.
First discussed at the October meeting, this stakeholder engagement process aimed to align our grants program with our mission, state’s goals and action plan, by capturing the perspectives of broadband users, communities who could benefit from these grants, our partners in industry, partner organizations and other stakeholders.
ConnectMaine hosted a virtual public meeting on November 9th to kickoff the conversation on the overarching objectives for infrastructure grants. Through November 16th, ConnectMaine sought input on our proposed objectives through an online survey.
The virtual public meeting held on December 14th focused on a proposed framework for the infrastructure grants program: Presentation and poll response (pdf). Through December, another online survey sought input on the proposed framework, which includes articulating eligibility, the elements of applications and review process, and accountability in grant reporting.
Under this framework the broadband infrastructure grants program, the application form, scoring guide and other materials were drafted. Your input was used in this process. The scoring criteria translate the objectives into more measurable indicators than the higher-level elements articulated in the framework.
These are the proposed objective (pdf) for the infrastructure grants program:
The ConnectMaine Authority administers grants, including the recently passed state bond. The mission of ConnectMaine is in part to facilitate the universal availability of broadband to all Maine households and businesses. These objectives are intended to guide ConnectMaine in developing its broadband infrastructure grant program.
The state Broadband Action Plan contains goals that guide ConnectMaine activities. Broadband service enables civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning and access to essential services. The state has set a goal of expanding the availability of broadband to connect 95% of potential subscriber locations by 2025.
ConnectMaine awards broadband infrastructure grants to support investments that propose the greatest relative improvement to existing internet service. ConnectMaine considers its statutory goals and policies, including that all infrastructure projects funded meet or exceed a minimum build standard and must be forward-looking to meet future broadband needs.
To meet these goals, changes to the broadband infrastructure grant program will aim to meet the following objectives:
- Maximize investment in broadband infrastructure, and maximize opportunities to leverage resources and funding from other sources to support deployment of broadband infrastructure; aim to correct market failures due to low premise density.
- Balance awards in consideration of investment incentives and regional equity; create a geographically equitable distribution of projects around the State.
- Align with community visions and goals for economic development, education, civic engagement and healthcare.
- Fund forward-looking, scalable infrastructure that provides ubiquitous, universally available broadband service, with sufficient capacity for future growth for the greatest number of years, giving preference to projects providing symmetrical service.
- Advance digital equity and inclusion; consider projects that propose the lowest price for the highest quality of service of the lowest service level offering; no grant will be awarded for proposed projects that allow data caps on service provided; all projects funded must result in providing standardized tiers of service, including one for income-eligible individuals.
First setting objectives with stakeholders, ConnectMaine develops this framework of its infrastructure grants program. The following is a summary, and the full version (pdf) was shared at the (late) November meeting.
The proposed structure of the broadband infrastructure grants program involves an announcement of the application window, with eligibility and project requirements. Aligning with its action plan, ConnectMaine will consider two tracks for proposed projects: Community-Driven Broadband Projects or Provider Expansion Projects. The application and review process may differentiate between these tracks or categories, while ensuring grants are awarded competitively as required by the ConnectMaine statute and rule.
The proposed process involves determination of applicant and location eligibility before applications are reviewed for potentially awarding grants. This includes confirming that broadband infrastructure wouldn’t be installed in the same time period. At least for the next application window, granted funds may be applied in unserved areas only, and there are a number of ways to identify these areas.
The proposed review process to determine which projects will be awarded grants involves considering four different scoring categories as required by the ConnectMaine rule: Cost-Benefit, Community Support, Project Scope and Project Value. The criteria under these categories are still being developed, and the evidence that would be requested and reviewed must be feasible for this next application window. The proposed framework differentiates between the two tracks with regard to some of the criteria.
The proposed framework for the infrastructure grants program holds applicants accountable for funded projects meeting predetermined requirements, demonstrated in grant reporting. These include the build-to standard for broadband service.
Other objectives remain important, but we need more time to figure out how to incorporate them into the infrastructure grants program. ConnectMaine welcomes on-going input, as these may be further considered in future strategic planning or rulemaking.