Maine Connectivity Authority President Andrew Butcher: A community and consensus builder takes charge Thumbnail Image

Maine Connectivity Authority President Andrew Butcher: A community and consensus builder takes charge

“You can't get there from here.”

That’s what residents of Maine (particularly those in Northern Maine) say in a heavy accent when asked for driving directions.

Well Andrew Butcher’s goal, as president of the Maine Connectivity Authority, is to actually get sufficient bits “there, from here,” for all of the state’s residents. 

In fact, it’s been his prime goal for the past three years as director of the Maine Broadband Coalition, where in 2020 he co-lead a successful campaign to persuade voters to borrow $15 million to fund broadband expansion. He and the coalition then went on to develop the legislation that ultimately created the MCA, which Governor Janet Mills and the state legislature signed off on through the Connectivity Infrastructure Act in June 2021. 

The state established the terms of statewide broadband deployment funded by the $129 million from two rounds of the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)’s Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund. (The state has also received $21 million from the Maine Jobs and Recovery Program, and it expects to receive up to $300 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.)

Butcher’s work at the Maine Broadband Coalition has been about empowering Mainers with solutions to get everyone connected, and particularly using technology as their secret weapon.

From building community gardens in Pittsburgh to community broadband in Maine

Butcher became MCA's president in early January 2022, when the state legislature confirmed his appointment. This puts him in charge of organizing the state’s efforts to parcel out all these funds. 

He has spent his career working to help local communities. He returned to Maine from Pittsburgh five years ago, where he ran an economic development organization he co-founded called Grounded Strategies. The non-profit focused on re-development as a platform for community regeneration. He was pretty busy: The city had 30,000 vacant lots at one point as a result of a 60 percent decline in the city’s population over the decades. When he moved, he was working with Carnegie Mellon University and the U.S. Postal Service on repurposing U.S. postal facilities, again, to help local communities. That led him to work with the cities of Lewiston and Portland, and the Maine Technology Institute.

“It was not quite what drew me to Maine,” he said during a Zoom interview. “Maine drew me be close to the places and people that I love. I have family here, and I spent a good amount of my formative life coming here in the summertime - and have always dreamed of living here.”

Having led the coalition for three years, Butcher is familiar with the protocol of coordinating with local communities and governments to roll out broadband networks. The Maine Broadband Coalition is the primary network of local communities, government agencies, service providers and technology companies working to bring universal, affordable and reliable internet access to the state. 

Empowering Mainers with solutions for broadband

The coalition, now with full-time staff, still runs a very informative newsletter and set of programming that keeps stakeholders informed and connected, and reminds people when they can meet on a regular basis every Friday to talk about Broadband. 

“Informed and equipped people can be really effective in designing their own solutions,” Butcher told me from his home office over Zoom earlier this year. “They understand the problems better than anyone else, and they have the resourcefulness and capability to design their own solutions – and that’s true whether you’re building a community garden, like I did in Pittsburgh, or whether you’re building out broadband infrastructure, like we are in Maine”

This belief is why he pushes for community engagement, capacity building and education. These things can help the community inform network builders and service providers what they really want. 

“We will continue to invest in the community-driven planning process, and we will try to incentivize regional-scale activities through utility districts where communities want to come together in that way.” 

In the past, several communities in Maine have banded together to form broadband utility districts to share the costs of running broadband to their homes. 

But that’s not the only way the state is going to expand broadband. 

Going All In and Getting Everyone Connected By 2024

The relatively small state of 1.4 million inhabitants has had one of the most organized and coherent broadband strategies in the nation. 

During 2022, the MCA established what it calls its All-In Program. The plan is to build broadband to more than 30,000 homes in rural and remote areas. 

That process will unfold, as required by the IIJA, in conjunction with the development of a statewide Digital Equity and 5-Year Broadband Masterplan. The MCA opened up the grant application process for its various programs this fall. And it issued a Request for Proposals for partners to help it create a digital equity plan in November. The deadline for applications is December 16, 2022. 

The state also wanted to create an entity like a public power authority so that it can be creative with financing, Butcher said. The authority might, for example, issue bonds or make equity investments. That would make it possible for the authority to own and operate its own infrastructure and enter public-private partnerships. Butcher did not commit to doing any of that since there are federal restrictions on some of these kinds of activities, but he said that it’s good to be able to have “all options on the table.” 

The state’s plans say that the MCA’s goal is to get a broadband connection to anyone who wants one by the end of 2024. 

Maine’s secret weapon

One of the tools that has helped Maine plan its networks and win a Broadband Infrastructure Project Grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration was its Broadband Intelligence Platform, Butcher said. Maine developed the tool with Vetro Fiber and Tilson Technology. It aggregates self-reported ISP network data with speed test information, among other things. 

“In 2021, the Platform allowed for us to rebut over 1200 challenges to the 15,000 locations that [service providers claimed were already served] that were submitted in our proposal,” he said.     

Butcher has spent 2022 establishing an impressive, team to manage all of this. When we spoke with him in April, he was looking to hire 15 people on top of the three full-time staff the MCA already had. The profile of the team is the envy of many other state offices and is composed of numerous leaders from a diversity of places and sectors around the state.  Additionally the MCA has an diverse array of partners ranging lawyers from the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic, to the Roux Institute at Northeastern to the State Department of Transportation. They are helping the MCA create a middle mile strategy, and a business plan, as well as a financing guide for broadband utility districts. The lawyers are also helping the authority with compliance issues tied to grant funding to build networks from a variety of funding streams. 

Butcher had these words for providers interested in serving communities in Maine: 

“ISPs need to be able to engage with regional partnerships in a meaningful way. We also believe in a competitive market space that advances the diversity of options for consumers. 

“We also believe in being as efficient and judicious with use of public funding as possible, and certainly want to minimize inefficiencies or overbuild, as some people might call it. And so, it's hard for us to know what would be overbuilt if we don't know where people are going to be building. So information sharing and data sharing will be paramount to making sure that we know what is being planned for and how we can complement it, how we can augment it.”

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