Consolidated Communications is building the largest fiber Internet network in Maine and says it will offer connections to tens of thousands of homes and businesses by the end of the year.
The telecommunications company is installing fiber optic cable in some of the state’s most populous areas, increasing competition with the cable companies that dominate Maine’s residential Internet market.
“Maine hasn’t had many fiber-to-home deployments in the past, and we’re excited to change that,” Erik Garr, president of the consumer-small business unit at Consolidated, said in an interview.
The company plans to provide fiber Internet to 150,000 homes and businesses in Maine by the end of 2022. It is building networks in Portland, Biddeford-Saco, the Augusta area, Rockland, Waterville, Falmouth and Bangor.
The goal is a comprehensive network for nearly all customers in the communities Consolidated has targeted, Garr said.
“My experience, because I’ve built these networks a lot, it’s always hard to get to the last house,” he said. “Our intent is to expand to the majority of homes that are in our service area in those cities.”
Consolidated’s Maine plan is part of the company’s overall shift to a major fiber-optic Internet service provider. Fiber optic cables reliably carry large amounts of information at incredibly high speeds.
In 2020, the company acquired $425 million from a private investment firm to accelerate broadband internet deployment. The following year, Consolidated launched Fidium, the Internet service brand, and expanded the service to 330,000 locations in the US, according to its annual report to shareholders. The company plans another 400,000 connections in 2022 and 1.6 million locations in 2026. Further expansion in Maine is expected in the coming years.
Consolidated advertises gigabit-per-second connections for an introductory rate of $70 per month, which includes home Wi-Fi equipment, slightly cheaper than rates offered by the cable brands Spectrum and Xfinity. After the one-year introductory period, Consolidated’s monthly price increases to $95 per month.
Gigabit speed is 1000 times faster than a megabit per second and is considered fast enough for multiple devices to run 4K resolution video streaming, online gaming and other high bandwidth usage simultaneously.
“We don’t believe there is a comparable product in northern New England,” Garr said. “We hear quite often from customers that they are not necessarily happy with the service they receive. The combination of a fiber network not yet for sale in Maine and a really good customer experience will be really powerful.”
Smaller ISPs, including Great Works Internet of GWI, Pioneer Broadband and Otelco, already provide fiber-optic services to homes in restricted areas of Maine, often as part of municipal broadband projects.
Still, the Consolidated expansion will be a major shock to Maine’s Internet market, said Peggy Schaffer, executive director of ConnectMaine, a government agency dedicated to universal broadband in the state.
Many of the areas Consolidated is targeting are already served by high-speed Internet and therefore are not eligible to use state or federal money to expand fiber-optic services, Schaffer said. Despite the ability to access high-speed internet, reliability and affordability remain concerns, and there is pent-up consumer demand for fiber to the home.
“In many of these markets, they are up against competitors, including the cable companies,” Schaffer says. “The fiber optic connections they install are of high quality, with low latency. Competition will help cut costs.”
Consolidated — formerly called FairPoint Communications — is the state’s largest telecommunications company and has an existing network of landlines, she said. This allows the company to quickly install new fiber optic lines.
“They have a cost advantage and a time advantage because they own the piles, and they’re already on it,” Schaffer said.
The expansion is privately funded, although Consolidated is a partner in a federal grant to install fiber internet in Rangeley, Farmington and Blue Hill. Maine has set aside about $250 million to bring broadband services to underserved parts of the state.
Consolidated’s expansion could help that mission as well, Schaffer said. As the company’s fiber footprint grows, it may seem a little further out to connect areas it wouldn’t otherwise have considered, she said.
“It’s a bonus for all of us,” Schaffer said. “We are really looking forward to it.”