Melinda Kinney, regional senior director for Spectrum, discusses the company's proposed dark fiber broadband expansion plans to the Caribou City Council. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — A controversial plan from Spectrum to expand high-speed internet in Caribou has scored major grant funding from Maine’s broadband agency.

The Maine Connectivity Authority voted Friday to approve $6,891,229 for Spectrum’s expansion projects in Maine, including $496,983 to expand the company’s current network in Caribou by 74.5 miles. Spectrum will contribute the remaining $948,150 toward the $1.4 million project, which company officials claim will offer faster speeds for about 294 under- and unserved residents.

The funds are part of the Maine Connectivity Authority’s Reach ME Line Extension program, which helps internet providers expand their current networks. The grants total $20 million and also include Great Works Internet, Comcast, Unitel and Consolidated Communications.

“We are committed to ensuring all residents of Caribou have access to Spectrum’s advanced products and services,” said Heidi Vandenbrouck, senior communications manager for Charter Communications, Spectrum’s parent company.

Spectrum had originally proposed that Caribou pay the $496,983 difference between the company’s commitment and the project’s total. Now, the expansion will cost the city nothing. Spectrum aims to complete the project by the end of 2024.

The $6 million grant will also fund the company’s expansion projects in Presque Isle, Dayton, Denmark, Fryeburg, Milford, Orrington, Mt. Vernon, Parsonsfield, Harrison, Howland, Otisfield, Milbridge and Lovell.

The Caribou expansion comes at the same time that the city’s utilities district has struggled to obtain funds for their own dark-fiber broadband network.

The district wants to construct a 140-mile, dark-fiber network throughout Caribou that would ideally deliver download and upload speeds of 100 megabits per second.

City councilors endorsed the project last year but have not devoted city funds. The council recently voted to support any internet provider, including Spectrum, that wants to expand broadband in Caribou.

Spectrum’s project sparked local controversy last fall, when it and the Portland-based Alliance for Quality Broadband Maine posted anti-utility-district ads on social media targeting Caribou residents.

In February, the Maine Connectivity Authority denied the utilities district a $1.6 million grant from its Connect the Ready program, opting instead to prioritize areas of Maine with less access, or none at all, to the state’s 1,300-mile dark fiber network.

That grant would have aided the first two construction phases in Caribou, which Utilities District General Manager Hugh Kirkpatrick wanted to start this fall.

Kirkpatrick said Friday that Spectrum’s grant will not stop the district from pursuing its own broadband network. He remained skeptical of Spectrum’s promise to serve all currently unserved customers.

“Spectrum’s proposal is not going to solve the problem,” he said.

If Spectrum only services 294 customers, that means thousands more could be without broadband, Kirkpatrick said. That is why he was opposed to Spectrum receiving Maine Connectivity Authority funds.

A 2021 city-funded study from Pioneer Broadband and Caribou’s Business Investment Group found there are 5,150 potential broadband customers in Caribou, 2,900 of them in under- or unserved areas. 

A 2022 study from Bangor-based Mission Broadband focused on locations rather than customers, and found at least 271 locations in Caribou are unserved.

To help utility districts better compete with internet providers, the Maine Connectivity Authority is developing a financial and technical assistance program for broadband utility districts, which it calls BUDs.

Caribou Utilities District became a BUD in 2022 after the Maine Legislature approved an amendment to its charter.

The exact funding amount for BUDs will be determined before the board of directors’ June meeting, said authority president Andrew Butcher.

The program targets a major problem facing utility districts in the broadband grant market, Butcher said. Unlike internet service providers, BUDs are relatively new and often don’t have enough money to contribute the matching funds that Connect the Ready required.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach [to broadband expansion]. We are trying to identify the best possible fit for different regions while making the best resources possible,” Butcher said.