Consolidated Communications is building the biggest fiber-optic internet network in Maine and said it plans to offer connections to tens of thousands of homes and businesses by the end of the year.
The telecom company is busy installing fiber-optic cable in some of the state’s most densely populated areas, intensifying its competition with the cable companies that dominate Maine’s residential internet market.
“Maine historically has not had a lot of fiber-to-the-home deployments and we are excited to change that,” said Erik Garr, president of the consumer-small business unit at Consolidated, in an interview.
The company intends to offer fiber-optic internet service to 150,000 Maine homes and businesses 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 covering nearly all the customers in the communities Consolidated has targeted, Garr said.
“My experience, having built these networks a lot, it is always hard to get to the last house,” he said. “Our intention is to build out to the majority of the homes that are in our service territory in those towns.”
Consolidated’s Maine plan is part of the company’s overall shift to becoming a major fiber-optic internet provider. Fiber-optic cables reliably carry large amounts of information at incredibly fast speeds.
In 2020, the company secured $425 million from a private investment firm to accelerate a broadband internet buildout. The next year, Consolidated launched Fidium, its internet service brand, and extended service to 330,000 U.S. locations, according to its annual report to shareholders. The company plans another 400,000 connections in 2022 and 1.6 million locations by 2026. Further buildout in Maine is expected in coming years.
Consolidated advertises gigabit-per-second connections for an introductory rate of $70 per month, including equipment for home Wi-Fi networks, slightly cheaper than rates offered by Spectrum and Xfinity cable brands. After the one-year introductory period, Consolidated’s monthly price increases to $95 a month.
Gigabit speed is 1,000 times faster than a megabit per second and is considered fast enough for multiple devices to do 4K-resolution video streaming, online gaming and other high-bandwidth uses simultaneously.
“We don’t believe there is a comparable product in northern New England,” Garr said. “We hear from customers pretty often that they are not necessarily happy with the service they get. The combination of a fiber network that hasn’t been offered for sale in Maine to date and a really good customer experience is going to be really powerful.”
Smaller internet service providers including Great Works Internet, or GWI, Pioneer Broadband and Otelco already provide fiber-optic service to homes in limited areas of Maine, often as part of municipal broadband projects.
Still, the Consolidated expansion will be a major shakeup in 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 has targeted are already served by high-speed internet and therefore not eligible to use state or federal money to expand fiber-optic service, Schaffer said. Despite being able 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 head-to-head with competitors, including the cable companies,” Schaffer said. “The fiber connections they are putting in are high quality, with low latency. Competition will help drive down costs.”
Consolidated – formerly named FairPoint Communications – is the state’s largest telecommunications company and has an existing network of landline telephone lines, she said. That means the company can rapidly install new fiber-optic lines.
“They have a cost advantage and a time advantage because they own the poles, and they are on them already,” 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 service to underserved parts of the state.
Consolidated’s expansion could aid that mission, too, Schaffer said. As the company’s fiber-optic footprint expands, it may look a little farther afield to connect areas it wouldn’t have otherwise considered, she said.
“It is a bonus for all of us,” Schaffer said. “We are very excited about it.”