Construction will soon begin to integrate the Washington County towns of Princeton and Cooper into the Downeast Broadband Utility (DBU), the state’s first municipal-owned broadband utility district. The network is expected to be completed next year, according to project officials.
Princeton and Cooper will be the fifth and sixth municipalities to join the Washington County-based network, which was founded in 2015 by a joint agreement between Calais and Baileyville. The DBU emerged when Calais and Baileyville recognized they were being passed up as potential locations for businesses due to a lack of reliable fiber broadband.
The head of the utility said the communities formed the network after Spectrum and Consolidated Communications did not extend their services to their municipalities.
“We offered both of those companies financial help to make it worthwhile for them to enhance their networks and to help them make a profit, and they still denied us,” said Daniel Sullivan, now the DBU president.
The small and spread-out customer base common to Washington County wasn’t viewed as a suitable investment, he said.
Consolidated Communications did not respond to Sullivan but noted it has expanded its service in Maine. Spectrum noted that the company’s predecessor, Time Warner Cable, was servicing the area prior to 2015.
Lighting up the dark fiber network
The first major step for the DBU was determining the cost of expanding the existing dark fiber network running through both municipalities. The network was in place as a result of the state’s Three Ring Binder project, a 1,100-mile network of fiber laid throughout the state’s rural areas that was completed in 2012.
The goal was to expand the dark fiber network — which ran through the primary streets of both Calais and Baileyville — to every household in the communities, giving the opportunity for providers to offer high-speed internet at no additional network expense.
The cost was $2.5 million. Construction began in Baileyville and Calais in 2018, and within 24 months every household had access to a fiber connection. In 2020, nearby Alexander voted to join the DBU, followed by Indian Township in 2021.
The DBU “currently boasts 830 customers who enjoy (some of) the fastest internet speeds available anywhere in the world, along with a better quality of life,” said Calais City Manager Mike Ellis.
Maine’s internet speeds are notoriously slow in some areas. AllConnect, an internet provider resource that measures connectivity speeds, found that Maine’s average download speed is 84 megabits per second, while the upload speed is the worst in the nation at 15 mbps. By contrast the DBU provided Baileyville and Calais with 100/100 mbps speeds since 2020, when the network was completed, according to Sullivan.
Cooper and Princeton decided to join the DBU network in 2022 following overwhelming support at their town meetings.
Princeton joins the fold
For the approximately 745 residents of Princeton, the decision to join the DBU was motivated by multiple factors, including increasing costs by the current providers. Another factor was speed.
“The fiber optic cable system DBU is able to offer has much higher upload speeds than the other providers, making any (video) communication glitch free and large project uploads much quicker,” said Wendy Leighton, the municipal clerk.
Among the town’s businesses and facilities that will benefit from the higher speeds are five places of lodging (Down River Camps, Long Lake Camps, the Hideaway on Pocomoonshine Lake, the Flying Eagle Lodge and the Bellmard Inn) and the Princeton Municipal Airport, which has undergone steady expansion over the past few years.
Once the DBU network is completed, residents will have new opportunities for working from home, regardless of their industry or sector, and students will have a smoother experience thanks to the improved stability and upload speeds, Leighton added.
The price for Princeton to complete the fiber connections to each household via the DBU came out to $803,175. At a town meeting, the decision to proceed had “full support,” Leighton said.
Future-proofing in Cooper
In Cooper, with a population just shy of 170 residents as of 2020, the approximately $500,000 cost was a bit harder to take. Nevertheless, the town’s enthusiasm was robust, said municipal clerk Erica Perkins.
“One thing that makes living in a rural area difficult is the lack of choices,” Perkins said. “High-speed connectivity will open up so many options. Another difficulty is having to travel large distances to access services. The DBU will enable us to access some of these services right from our homes.”
With so few residents and amenities, Cooper has tried for “many years” to get reliable broadband, Perkins said. “The larger companies were not interested, presumably because we have few customers spread over a fairly large area. Less traditional wireless options were ineffective in many places because of the difficult geography.”
All of that will change when Cooper connects to the DBU. “Everyone will have access to reliable internet with fast upload and download speeds, and the fiber backbone will be there to grow with us in the future,” Perkins said.
Though it lacks the number of businesses that Princeton has, Cooper’s residents are looking forward to the possibilities that high-speed internet offers.
“We have a lot of creative people in town, and I can’t wait to see how they leverage these new opportunities,” Perkins said. “I know several of our seasonal residents are looking forward to being able to spend more time at their summer homes because they can stay connected to work.”
For both Princeton and Cooper, another attractive part of the DBU is that the municipal-level ownership means the towns receive a portion of the subscriber fees — enabling them to pay back the initial cost at first, then to support municipal infrastructure.
“By towns investing in their own broadband utility, as DBU has done, the service is provided and the profit generated goes back to the towns,” said Sullivan, the DBU president.
Laying foundations for fiber across the state — and the country
Three other municipalities are considering joining the DBU, though they haven’t been identified.
“Baring, Eastport, Pleasant Point, Perry, Charlotte, Meddybemps, Pembroke, Whiting and Lubec are a few of the communities in Washington County that are currently exploring a path to affordable, fast, reliable internet services for their residents,” said Ellis, the Calais city manager.
Municipalities across the state — and as far away as Texas — have contacted the DBU, which offers to freely provide the paperwork required to establish a similar municipal broadband utility.
Noting that the DBU model “works for both rural and urban areas,” Sullivan said that by investing into the community it serves, the model is both simple and attractive. “All profits go back to the towns — not to stockholders, CEOs and managers of corporations.”
The success of the DBU model has attracted attention. The Maine Connectivity Authority — which provided grants to both Cooper and Princeton to join the DBU — recently met with Sullivan as a step toward creating a task force for creating municipal utilities.
For its part, the U.S. Department of Agriculture met with the DBU the following week to discuss funding routes for expansion and to give federal officials the opportunity to see how the utility was providing “equity of access to critical services,” said the department’s rural development state director, Rhiannon Hampson.
“We believe that access to high-speed internet is as essential to every rural Mainer as electricity and drinking water; it is foundational to the education, healthcare delivery and economic growth of every community in rural America, and at USDA Rural Development we are poised to support that work.”