Caribou Utilities District General Manager Hugh Kirkpatrick (right) and CUD Trustee Jay Kamn discuss broadband expansion during a special trustees meeting on Monday. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine – The loss of major grant funding could push back Caribou’s quest for greater rural broadband access.

The Caribou Utilities District and the Houlton-based Pioneer Broadband want to construct a citywide dark-fiber network to bring modern internet speeds to all Caribou residents in need. 

The need in Maine’s rural communities for broadband internet access is well documented, and Caribou is among towns taking matters into its own hands. In Aroostook, Maine’s largest county, one in four homes lack reliable access. Now Caribou’s project could be in jeopardy because the Maine Connectivity Authority rejected a $1.6 million grant for the utilities district.

“We had a schedule of fall 2023 through the end of 2024 for phases one and two [of the project],” said Hugh Kirkpatrick, Caribou Utilities District general manager. “We would have started connecting customers [to the network] during that year.”

The project will take at least five years to build, but officials say it’s necessary to ensure access for nearly 3,000 residents.

The connectivity authority’s Connect the Ready grant would have paid for 60 percent of the first two phases of dark-fiber pole installations, which were estimated at $2.6 million, Kirkpatrick said. Now, without major grants in sight, the district could push back their installation schedule.

The plan was to install poles on the south end of Route 1 and more rural parts of Caribou while signing up customers to Pioneer Broadband and Great Works Internet, the providers who have agreed to join the network.

If the utilities district does not find other funding before the planned start date, the first two phases of pole installation could be delayed until early 2024, Kirkpatrick said.

Maine Connectivity Authority President Andrew Butcher said Caribou’s grant application was rejected after he and colleagues found other communities with more dire broadband needs.

Formed in 2021, the Maine Connectivity Authority is a quasi-governmental agency tasked with allocating $150 million in American Rescue Plan Act Capital Projects funds to Maine communities lacking access to a 1,300-mile dark fiber network constructed throughout Maine, including Aroostook, in the mid-2000s.

Connect the Ready grants are awarded to the “least served” communities who do not exist near that network.

The Maine Connectivity Authority defines the “least served” broadband areas as those with internet download speeds below 25 megabits per second and 3 megabits per second for uploads, equal to the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum speed standards.

The authority defines “unserved” communities as those with at least 50 megabits per second for downloads and 10 megabits for uploads. “Underserved” communities still have places with spotty internet but faster speeds overall, usually between 50 and 100 megabits for downloads and between 10 and 100 for uploads, Butcher said.

Much of Caribou falls in the underserved category, according to FCC data, he said, which is why Caribou’s grant was rejected.

“It’s a competitive grant process. We needed to prioritize towns that truly have no broadband or are really lacking modern service,” Butcher said.

For instance, in the towns of Brooks and Waldo in Waldo County, 98.5 percent of both populations are considered “least served.” The towns’ partnership with Unitel and Direct Communications and $1 million financial commitment helped them secure an over $3 million Connect the Ready grant.

According to a study released in December 2022 by Bangor-based Mission Broadband, 271 locations in Caribou fit the Maine Connectivity Authority’s definition of an “unserved” area, 39.7 potential miles of length for new dark-fiber poles.

But Mission Broadband’s focus on locations does not consider the actual number of customers who might need better broadband, Kirkpatrick said.

“A 5-unit apartment building is a location, but that building has five customers,” he said. “So the 271 locations in Caribou is a very low figure.”

In 2021, a Pioneer Broadband study found that at least 5,150 potential customers for the utilities district’s proposed network exist in Caribou. Of that total, approximately 2,900 of those customers live in areas that the FCC defines as underserved or unserved. That means an estimated 72 percent of residents live in unserved regions, Kirkpatrick said.

In choosing Connect the Ready recipients, the Maine Connectivity Authority also considered whether municipal and internet partners already had funds allocated towards their project, another obstacle for Caribou Utilities District and Pioneer.

The district has transferred $200,000 from its wastewater division to the broadband division to help pay for initial pole installation, which Kirkpatrick said was common practice for district projects. But so far efforts to receive grants and community donations have failed.

In November, the utilities district lost a proposed donation of $250,000 when the Caribou City Council ousted Cary Hospital District Board members Tim Todd and Bryan Cullins, who voted in favor of donating the funds, after learning that Todd might be professionally involved with the broadband project. Caribou Utilities District’s Board of Trustees agreed not to accept the donation.

“I had no conflict of interest,” Todd said. “The [hospital district] board wanted to be forward-thinking and help kick off the project.” Todd opposed the council decision.

He and Cullins had wanted to donate the money because they believed higher internet speeds would benefit local telehealth patients, Todd said.

His company, R.L. Todd & Sons, is one of several electrical contractors the utilities district lists as potential partners with the broadband project. But he would only sign a contract if he bid on the project and Pioneer chose his company to install dark-fiber poles, he said.

As a business owner, Todd said he understands how slow Caribou’s internet connection could be and thinks the utilities district has found a potentially innovative solution.

“My business is right here on Main Street but our internet speeds are terrible. I know there are too many other people who are under- or unserved,” Todd said.

Kirkpatrick said the utilities district will continue searching for potential grants and reaching out to community donors, he noted.

“We’ll just have to keep looking [for funds],” Kirkpatrick said. “There are a lot of monies available, but it’s really a matter of finding the right program.”

While Connect the Ready might not be that program, Butcher said Maine Connectivity Authority is supportive of utilities districts taking on broadband projects like Caribou’s.

“We’re really encouraged to see the approach that Caribou is taking,” Butcher said. “Utilities districts are one way to address broadband needs and we want to be as supportive of that approach as possible.”