AUGUSTA – Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash introduced legislation to improve access to high-speed reliable internet in Caribou at a public hearing before the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee on Tuesday. LD 1949, “An Act To Amend the Caribou Utilities District Charter To Include Broadband Services,” aims to close the internet gap in Caribou by granting the Caribou Utilities District the authority to utilize public-private partnerships to build a network that internet service providers could plug into without charging customers living along the “last mile” a sizable fee to construct the necessary infrastructure.
“For years, homeowners and businesses living in what’s known as the ‘last mile’ have struggled to access reliable, high-speed internet at a reasonable rate. It’s holding back our students, our local economy and our entire community,” said President Jackson. “In this day and age, broadband isn’t something that Mainers can afford to go without. It’s essential to receive telehealth services, participate in online learning, run a successful business and connect with loved ones living far away. It’s why I’m proud to sponsor LD 1949 and partner with community leaders to help close the internet gap in Caribou.”
President Jackson proposed the legislation after conversations with Hugh A. Kirkpatrick, General Manager of Caribou Utilities District, who has been working on the issue for years. Since Caribou Utilities District is a municipal entity, the organization is eligible for a wide range of grants available through ConnectMaine and potential federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was passed by Congress last year.
“Over 1,300 miles of dark fiber optic cable was constructed throughout Maine over 10 years ago. It
travels through Caribou, however, since then, there is limited access for any customers to connect to this for high-speed broadband service. Private telecom companies in the region have not demonstrated
an interest in expanding this infrastructure,” said Kirkpatrick. “If the 130th Maine Legislative approves LD 1949, they will be fulfilling the charge of the ConnectMaine Authority for a community which has chosen this operational structure in order to expand broadband service availability throughout the City of Caribou and possibly the region.”
David Belyea, President of the Caribou Utilities District’s Board of Trustees, noted that the municipal organization has “a proven track record of providing excellent service, committed stewardship, and fiscal responsibility for Caribou’s water and wastewater infrastructure.” He also noted that, unlike the out-of-state telecom companies, “[The Caribou Utilities District has the] experience, capacity, and most important the desire to build a public broadband fiber network that serves everyone in Caribou, not just the easy and profitable portions of the City.”
The committee also received written testimony from a number of Caribou City Councilors, highlighting the need and urgency to expand access to high-speed reliable internet and the benefits of embracing this type of public-private partnership.
“As Caribou City Councilor and taxpayer, I wholeheartedly support the concept of the Caribou Utilities District installing, and owning a broadband fiber network throughout Caribou, we feel without this significant change that Caribou will not be able to be competitive in growing and competing for jobs and residential growth in the future,” said Doug Morrell, Caribou City Councilor in written testimony.
“Our school district, RSU 39, will benefit by students having broadband internet for a far better distance learning education than what was experienced during the pandemic. The Superintendent of schools mentioned back in 2020 that no less than 30 families did not have the required internet connectivity to allow students to even participate in remote learning. Our hospital, Cary Medical Center, will benefit by patients in Caribou having broadband internet for telemedicine appointments. Covid created a surge in working from home/remotely for continued employment; setting a future precedent for the need for a broadband utility in Caribou as more of these jobs are shifted or created to a 21st-century workplace model,” said David Corriveau, a retired small business owner, former mayor and current member of the Caribou Planning Board in written testimony. “By changing the CUD charter to include broadband, it allows us as a community to embrace progress for our future leaders today.”
LD 1949 will be the subject of additional work sessions in the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee before going before the full Legislature for initial votes.