Caribou Utilities District General Manager Hugh Kirkpatrick (right) poses with Senator Troy Jackson prior to the state senate's unanimous approval of a bill that allows the CUD to form its own broadband internet division. Credit: Credit: Courtesy of Christine Kirby

CARIBOU, Maine – Residents in more remote areas of Caribou might soon see expanded internet coverage thanks to a legislative bill that allows the city’s Utilities District to start a broadband division.

On March 22, the Maine Senate unanimously approved LD 1949: An Act to Amend the Caribou Utilities District Charter to Include Broadband Services.” The bill was proposed by Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and allows the utilities district, which is not a city department, to establish a broadband internet division.

Though 1,300 miles of dark fiber optic cable were constructed in Maine a decade ago, including in Caribou, access to remote areas of the city remains limited, Hugh Kirkpatrick, Caribou Utilities District general manager, said in his testimony before the Legislature. Aroostook County has long lacked reliable internet, and Caribou’s proposal could help expand coverage just as federal money aided Houlton’s Pioneer Broadband last year.

Last month, Kirkpatrick proposed the district’s plans to build a high-speed, dark fiber network. Though the network will be available to all residents and businesses, Kirkpatrick is especially concerned about connecting residents in rural regions of Caribou.

The CUD plans to construct a single strand of dark fiber to connect customers to the network, located on Sincock Street. Kirkpatrick said the network will bring “state-of-the-art” internet coverage and wouldn’t require upgrades for at least 30 years. The current fiber isn’t compatible with today’s increased internet gigabit speeds.

Though the CUD would be the network owner and operator, internet services providers such as Pioneer Broadband, Spectrum, Consolidated Communications and others could connect current and new customers to the CUD’s network. Each provider would pay a $25 monthly customer subscription fee to the CUD.

“We would like two or more [internet companies] to provide citizens with a choice of providers,” Kirkpatrick said. “Competition should keep monthly prices lower and customer service higher.”

Kirkpatrick and the CUD have collaborated with Caribou’s Business Investment Group and the Houlton-based division of Pioneer Broadband to study what it would take to guarantee broadband coverage to the entire city.

That study, according to Pioneer CEO Tim McAfee, has found that 2,900 households in Caribou receive less reliable internet service than those closer to downtown business districts. Pioneer is the first company thus far to express interest in providing internet as part of the CUD’s future network.

So far, most local internet providers, including Consolidated Communications and Spectrum, have been more interested in partnering with Caribou financially on broadband expansion.

Most recently, Melinda Kinney, regional senior director for Maine’s Spectrum division, told the city council that Spectrum is promising to construct at least 74.5 miles of dark fiber to 294 unserved homes. The project would cost $1.4 million and involve the city paying $857,133 and Spectrum contributing $600,000. The project would target underserved areas and later broaden its reach.

Kate Foye, director of state government affairs for Charter Communications, the company that provides internet under the Spectrum brand, spoke neither for nor against LD 1949.

Foye questioned whether allowing a utility company to own a broadband network would create a monopoly that would drive out private competitors and increase utility prices for customers. She said that Spectrum encourages legislators to ensure that there are policies in place to prevent such scenarios from happening.

“A utility can hold its customers hostage by requiring that water customers subscribe to its broadband service,” Foye said.

The CUD has always operated separate divisions for water and sewer and would not force current customers to subscribe to broadband, Kirkpatrick said in his testimony.

Kirkpatrick has continually expressed doubt about whether private internet companies truly intend to bring dark fiber to underserved areas.

“They were asked by the Caribou City Council during their presentations about this issue and their responses were not a clear and definitive pledge to include all customers ‘to the last mile’ in their proposals,” Kirkpatrick said. “Our proposal includes every address in the city.”

Kirkpatrick said the CUD would obtain financing for the project, likely through a combination of state and local grants and potential loans and bonds, like those from the Maine Bond Bank.

Caribou councilors have not yet decided if they will partner with a private internet company or provide financial support to the CUD broadband project.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Spectrum’s view on LD 1949. Representatives from Spectrum spoke neither for nor against the bill.