Photo credit: ConnectME Authority

Considerable federal and state dollars will flow into and across Maine for broadband infrastructure in the coming months. What an opportunity for Maine!  As planners, let’s think about how to invest it equitably and to support what we value in our communities. There are several planning tools, financing options, and incentives planners can use to achieve these goals.

Plan for Broadband

Most Comprehensive Plans include policies to improve broadband access. A finer distinction is whether such policies assert that it should be available to everyone in the community. The COVID pandemic has illuminated the unequal distribution of broadband infrastructure in the starkest of terms especially for working families with children. Specific strategies to implement your goal of better broadband, or broadband for all, are rooted in understanding your needs, engaging your community, getting technical support, and figuring out how to pay for it – a very typical planning issue.

While there are several steps in the broadband planning process, many highly technical, the good news is there are a wide variety of helpful resources and a substantial pipeline of funding is on the horizon.

A critical first step is to form a local or regional broadband committee that includes a broad cross section of community members. Second, any community needs to assess their needs. Planners have tools to help here: a survey instrument, community meetings, and outreach strategies. This is a highly technical issue and the need for education is essential. Technical experts are also needed to assess your infrastructure and suggest feasible options. Work with an incumbent provider and take the time to determine the technical feasibility of your wish lists. Third, research how to pay for it. There are a variety of financing models, often public-private in nature, and the availability of new state and federal dollars will stretch these tools tremendously in the next several years.

Finally, and fundamentally, start, finish, and start again with education on the benefits of this infrastructure. With each community-driven broadband build, we are realizing more benefits and uses to be derived from a strong, reliable internet system. Communities are narrowing in on what is critical for Maine’s residents now, and into the future, and what technology and ownership models are better left in the past. As a community or region begins to investigate the needs in their area, lean on the resources and models already established by Maine’s communities as a starting point. There are several organizations with community-driven processes and documented case studies that can help to guide the conversation. There is no need to start from scratch. Several links are provided below to excellent resources.

Sound Land Use Planning

There is a common assumption that providing high speed broadband throughout a community will necessarily lead to sprawl with a response that such infrastructure should only be supported in densely settled areas. While this assumption and response may hold true for wastewater infrastructure, it need not be true for broadband. Indeed, given the massive inequities experienced during the COVID pandemic during which rural and low-income families and children could not work or learn, supporting broadband infrastructure only in densely or wealthy areas is an untenable policy choice. It is also one that forgets the many sound land use planning tools available to us, as well as the market choices that most people make about where to live.

The hot real estate market of late 2020 to the present is hottest in places that are places. Maine has lots of them: lovely villages, historic and funky downtowns, neighborhoods with schools that are walking distance from home, and amenities like parks, water, and trails. Maine, “the way life should be”, is attracting new residents who literally buy this tagline and seek places with the features described above; and it is one of our strongest economic development assets. The planning tools we already have – performance zoning, design review, respect for existing proportions so that infill matches historic setbacks, re-examining excessive parking requirements, and more – will continue to support development in our great places. Many such places already have broadband and are attracting telecommuters who often bring their employment with them from other states and other countries. Broadband providers may be more interested in bringing a higher quality service to areas where there is this increased demand (“take rate” in broadband terms).  This new activity can improve the quality of service for everyone in an area.  It can also attract new providers to bring service to these denser areas, providing competition and hopefully lower prices.   

Alternatively, the private sector is less inclined to provide highspeed broadband where population and subscription levels are low, like in rural Maine. Sprawl is already happening without this infrastructure and the drivers behind the location decisions of businesses and residents are rooted in many factors besides broadband. These include available family land, road frontage, cheaper land, differential tax rates, the absence of zoning, Internet service that is “good enough”, a desire for privacy, simply being a farmer, woodlot owner, or recreation business, and others. However, much like the landline telephone infrastructure that reached all homes by the mid-50s (or, finally, by the mid-70s in some of rural Maine) we have reached a point in our progression as a society that modern highspeed broadband infrastructure must reach all of our homes as well.  Providing broadband may induce some sprawl, but it is likely NOT the main driver.  Continued investment in cities and villages is critical to any community’s survival.  Broadband is one piece of that infrastructure that can attract new residents to areas of declining population.  Just as phone service (now cell service) was seen as critical infrastructure then, broadband has now taken on that role.  

Where the market does support private highspeed broadband investment, there are other models and other incentives that can spur broadband investment.

Policy Tools for Equity and Economic Development

If your policy choice is to reach everyone in your community, there are different tools depending on the development pressure you face. The Downeast Broadband Utility (DBU) formed by the city of Calais and the town of Baileyville offers a model where development pressure is very limited. These two communities chose to create a utility that is financed by a bank loan backed by municipal funds.  The utility builds the backbone infrastructure, running fiber optic cable throughout both communities. Subscribers can then choose an Internet provider of their choice to connect to this infrastructure and the utility receives a portion of those subscriptions to pay back the loan over time. Fiber optic cable is first installed in densely populated areas, including nearby towns, ensuring the maximum take rate to assist with initial debt payments, but the utility has made a commitment to the entirety of each community and payback is spread across all subscribers.

The choice to form the DBU is grounded in economic development and clear-eyed recognition that in an economically challenged area, no single private sector Internet provider will take the risk to upgrade broadband services at a community-wide fiber-to-the-premises model. A public private partnership is essential in these situations and, if public bonds or other public funds are to be issued by municipalities, those resources must support the entire community; equity by default if you will.


In rural areas that do have development pressure, communities have more options. Developers can be required to provide fiber optic broadband infrastructure to new development and even to receive a density bonus if they extend from a trunk line to the front foot of each lot. This can be achieved through ordinance and/or impact fee provisions.

In the growth areas of villages and cities, utilities like the DBU discussed above can prioritize hanging fiber in the most densely settled areas. A policy or ordinance provision to address equity and our persistent affordable housing crisis, can also subsidize broadband connectivity if a developer reduces lot sizes and/or builds a proportion of smaller affordable homes.

Even though more state and federal funds are in the pipeline, the enormity of the infrastructure build out called for will need multiple sources of financing. Funding sources are almost always awarded competitively so any community seeking them will be best served by creative and diverse sources of matching funds. Tax increment financing (TIF) districts can be modified to pay for several of the investments needed such as an initial assessment of need, feasibility analyses, and subscriber surveys. TIF monies could also build some of the core infrastructure within your community to complete the necessary downscaling from the 3-Ring Binder and install necessary “switching” stations and other “black box” technical requirements. From an equity perspective, TIF funding could also support tower construction to reach remote areas, build a web presence to support education, and the last mile of infrastructure in rural and lower income areas.

Critical Factors for Success

Those communities who have been most successful in getting or improving highspeed broadband access have several things in common. The first is leadership: coming together and choosing to make it happen. As noted, especially in rural areas where subscribership is low, these areas will be the very last to get highspeed service unless local leadership emerges and takes the steps necessary to get to the front of the line.

The second is education and outreach. While we have learned the essential value of highspeed broadband in the last 18 months, many are still reluctant or uninformed. Some don’t want to spend money. Some don’t know what they don’t know and cannot see the value for their children, for health care, for entertainment, for emergency response,  education, civic engagement, connections with families near and far, growth for small businesses, support of our traditional agricultural, forestry and fishing industries, creation of new businesses and new technologies, attraction and retention of new and existing community members, allowing our seniors to remain in their communities, and so on. Bringing this knowledge and insight to community members takes time and energy. The experience of other communities can help.

The third is innovative financing. Several ideas are described above, from incentives, to local utility and bond issuance, to TIFs. There are other ideas you can learn from other communities and, as noted, state and federal dollars will flow soon, so now is a good time to learn.and plan.  But remember that getting money is always competitive so draw on all these sources, be ready with local match, and leverage one source along with others.

Finally, and most importantly, remember what makes your community unique and attractive. That has not changed with this infrastructure investment opportunity. People want broadband but they want many other things too. Stick with the plan, be planners, and keep Maine “the way life should be”.

Web Resources:

What is Smart Growth?

Community Tools

SmartGrowth for Maine


Broadband (Island Institute)

Land Use Planning Commission

Municipal Planning Assistance Program

Overview: Vinalhaven Campaign for Community Broadband

Downeast Broadband Utility

Co-authored by:

Judy East

Judy East is Executive Director of the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, the planning and zoning authority for the unorganized and deorganized areas of the State. Judy has 33 years of experience working across disciplines at the local, regional and state levels in New York and New England, the last 21 years in rural Maine. This service has included community development, climate vulnerability assessment and resilience planning, transportation and infrastructure planning and development, including cellular and broadband infrastructure planning, and multiple issues in land use planning and local regulation. 

Co-authored by:

Kendra Jo Grindle

Kendra Jo Grindle is a Senior Community Development Officer and the Broadband Lead at the Island Institute, a nonprofit organization in Rockland, Maine. Prior to her time in broadband, Kendra Jo worked for three years supporting Maine-based groundfish fishermen at the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and came to Maine in 2013 as an Island Institute Island Fellow for the community of Islesboro. 

Co-authored by:

Peggy Schaffer

Peggy Schaffer is the Executive Director of the ConnectME Authority, Maine’s program to expand broadband to unserved areas of the state.  Prior to joining ConnectME, Peggy was the Small Business Advocate in the Secretary of State's office and served as the Co-chair for the Maine Broadband Coalition, a statewide advocacy organization that is focused on expanding high speed broadband.   Peggy served as the Chief of Staff in the State Senate, and as the legislative liaison for the Department of Economic and Community Development under both the King and Baldacci.