AURORA, Maine — What telecommunications company has the most sophisticated network, for both voice and Internet service, in the state? The answer is surprising.
It’s a small, regional provider in northern Hancock County. Union River Telephone Co., based in Aurora, recently finished the state’s first complete fiber-to-the-home infrastructure project. That is, the company has completely replaced its legacy telephone system with fiber-optic cable, all the way up to the end-user’s wall.
The company services 1,200 customers in Aurora, Otis and Beddington. It’s one of only two independent telecom companies in the state, and is one of 22 small, regional providers that service about 15 percent of Maine telephone lines. FairPoint Communications handles the rest.
It’s a milestone for the small company because fiber to the home can support much faster speeds than DSL or cable. It’s also a stronger signal, retaining its integrity for miles and miles, whereas electric signals transmitted over copper telephone lines degrades after about three miles, causing upload/download speeds to decrease.
Fiber optics, a technology in which light, not electricity, is transmitted over glass, not copper, is largely free from that problem.
Though Union River is not the first Maine company to deploy fiber-optic lines — most Internet service providers use the high-speed technology for parts of their networks — they are the first to completely replace their legacy lines.
David Pelletier is the office manager for Union River Telephone. He said the system upgrade is a move to protect the small company’s market into the future, as more and more customers leave wired communications entirely.
“It sets us up for the future,” he said. “We see our future as being a data mover, basically, either as voice data or data which makes up everything you can do over the World Wide Web — the streaming, the gaming, the movement of information.”
For now, Maine law protects Union River Telephone and five other small companies from competition, said Wayne Jortner with the Maine Public Advocate’s office. Time Warner Cable, which offers bundled phone, Internet and cable TV services on its cable network, is fighting those protections at the Public Utilities Commission, he said. The public advocate has come down on the side of the small companies.
Despite legal protections, Pelletier said Union River still is feeling the squeeze of technological convergence. Rural Mainers increasingly have choices for Internet access, from 3G and 4G access via their cellphones to wireless Internet through a number of rural satellite companies.
“There may not be another wire line provider out this way, but with cellular tech and 3G and 4G, there are definitely competitive forces these days,” Pelletier said. “Plus, more and more young people are opting for cellular service over wired service. So we need to put out a good product, but we also need to encourage people to stay on that product.”
Jortner backed up the wire-cutting assertion: About 22 percent of homes that had land-line phones have cut the cord, opting for cellphone use only, he said.
But Jortner said Union River Telephone’s big upgrade may not protect its market share just yet. He notes that while the company has the capacity to offer the fastest, most reliable broadband speeds in the state, its retail offerings don’t show that yet.
The company’s fastest offering is 6 megabits per second, according to its website. Time Warner Cable’s turbo Internet package offers speeds more than three times that, at 20Mb per second. FairPoint’s ultra service offers 16Mb per second.
“There’s an irony here,” Jortner said. “This little company has the most advanced network in the state, but we’re not seeing services commensurate with that on the retail side.”
Pelletier said it’s only a matter of time. The system upgrade was the first step. Future upgrades will be in the light, lasers and electronic units at the central office. He said the network could one day see speeds of 77Mb per second into a home.
“At some time in the future, we’ll be expanding the service,” he said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.