Caribou Utilities District board members (left to right) Phil McDonough, David Martin and Gary Aiken at a January meeting. The board voted recently to support any internet provider expanding coverage in Caribou. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

As Spectrum pursues state funds to expand its broadband presence in Caribou, the city utilities district has halted its internet plan due to lack of grant funding.

Next Friday, the Maine Connectivity Authority could decide whether Spectrum becomes the first internet provider to expand its current fiber-optic network in Caribou.

For the past year, Caribou leaders have debated whether a proposed citywide broadband network from the Caribou Utilities District or expansions by existing internet providers would best serve residents. Most recently, the Caribou City Council and Utilities District Board of Trustees voted to support any company’s efforts to expand or build new networks, including Spectrum. That could give thousands of residents more high-speed internet options.

Utilities District Board President Gary Aiken said Spectrum’s project could expand broadband faster than the district can right now.

“I don’t know if Spectrum is the better option or not, but if the district can’t carry on [with its project], that doesn’t mean Spectrum or another company can’t,” Aiken said. “There are people in Caribou who have already waited forever for fast internet.”

The Utilities District wants to construct a 140-mile, dark-fiber network throughout the entire city that would ideally deliver 100-megabit upload and download speeds.

Spectrum plans to install 43 miles of dark fiber utility lines by the end of 2024, extending their current network in Caribou to 74.5 miles total.

Though councilors endorsed the utility district’s efforts last year, many have been skeptical of the project’s five-year construction timeline and inability to obtain funding. Most recently the district lost a $1.6 million grant from the Maine Connectivity Authority.

The project does not require taxpayer investment, said Utilities District General Manager Hugh Kirkpatrick. But without funds from grants or donations, fiber pole construction cannot begin in fall 2023, as originally planned. The project could begin in 2024 if funded, he said.

But Kirkpatrick worries that if the Maine Connectivity Authority funds Spectrum’s proposal, the utility district’s project might not receive future grants, given the authority’s statewide focus.

“[If they fund both of us], that would give us two entities in Caribou essentially competing against each other,” Kirkpatrick said.

Charter Communications, the parent company of Spectrum, has applied for $496,983 from the Maine Connectivity Authority that would contribute to the $1,445,133 expansion. Spectrum would pay the remaining $948,150. Their project would cost the city nothing and would connect an estimated 294 currently unserved customers.

Maine Connectivity Authority would help fund the expansion through the Reach ME Line Extension program, which supports internet providers looking to extend current networks. On Friday, April 21, Maine Connectivity Authority’s board of directors will vote on which of 10 Reach ME proposals they wish to fund.

Spectrum’s plans for Caribou are in addition to Charter Communication’s $82 million investment in Maine broadband. The expanded Caribou network would offer residential customers internet speeds of 300 megabits and offer business customers options for 300 or 600 megabits and 1 gigabit, said Senior Communications Manager Heidi Vandenbrouck.

“We continue to explore opportunities and invest in the rural, unserved areas of Maine,” Vandenbrouck said. “This project [for Caribou] is a good fit for the Reach ME program.”

Spectrum had previously proposed that Caribou pay the $496,983 portion of the project, on the condition that they give no funds to the Caribou Utilities District’s project.

Kirkpatrick had criticized Spectrum’s proposal because it didn’t include all of Caribou’s least served residents.

A study released in 2022 by Bangor-based Mission Broadband claims that 271 locations in Caribou fit the Maine Connectivity Authority’s definition of unserved areas. Unserved areas have access to internet speeds of at least 50 megabits per second for downloads and 10 megabits for uploads.

By contrast, underserved areas have faster speeds overall — between 50 and 100 megabits for downloads and between 10 and 100 for uploads. The state’s “least served” areas, which the Authority prioritizes for funding, have the slowest speeds — 25 megabits for downloads and 3 megabits for uploads.

The Utilities District uses data from a 2021 city-funded study from Pioneer Broadband and Caribou’s Business Investment Group.

That study found that at least 5,150 potential customers for the district’s proposed network exist in Caribou. About 2,900 of those customers live in areas that the Maine Connectivity Authority would define as least served. The district prefers to use the term unserved.

Pioneer Broadband’s study focused on people in different households, rather than locations. A single location could be an apartment building or multi-family home that has many customers, Kirkpatrick said.

Maine Connectivity Authority President Andrew Butcher said he could not speculate on whether his agency will fund Spectrum or future grant applications related to Caribou.  But the Authority is developing a program that, if approved, would provide financial and technical assistance to utility districts looking to launch broadband networks.

A decision to fund Spectrum wouldn’t mean the authority is discouraging Caribou’s Utilities District from applying for future grants, Butcher said. Instead, the Authority wants to spur broadband expansion in whatever means possible.

“MCA’s funding priority is with any entity that promises universal coverage for regions without internet service,” Butcher said. “We have a huge problem in Maine and it’s going to take a variety of solutions. That’s why we need a healthy, competitive broadband ecosystem to drive affordability and give people options.”

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect that Spectrum’s grant proposal is in addition to its parent company’s plan.