FirstLight takes fiber into the wilds of Maine

New York-based operator FirstLight is pushing its fiber builds deeper into rural, hard-to-reach pockets of Maine. One of the goals of the new construction in the Pine Tree State is transitioning existing copper from ILEC strongholds to full fiber.

Originally founded over 20 years ago, FirstLight operates in six states across New England and the Mid-Atlantic: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania. Each state has at least 2,000 route miles of infrastructure within its borders from the telecom provider. In Maine, FirstLight already has 3,600 route miles of fiber and is planning to add 121 more by the end of 2022.

At 15,000 customers strong, FirstLight’s top products are internet and private lines. Maine is home to the operator’s largest share of residential internet customers. Primary competition for the organization includes Verizon and Comcast, though Consolidated Communications also operates in Maine.

FirstLight has the ability to reach many of the state’s homes with investments in fiber from their existing ILEC footprint.** But working in such a rural state isn’t easy. “Due to the rural nature [of these communities], the next set of builds is challenging because [these areas] are not densely settled,” said Maura Mahoney, FirstLight’s Chief Marketing Officer.

FirstLight acquired Todd Cable Construction in 2019 to help expedite route mile build-outs—and the decision has paid off. In 2018, the team built 1,000 route miles and steadily climbed to a peak of 4,000 route miles in 2020. The organization is comfortable with setting an annual goal of 2,000 new route miles looking into the years ahead.

One of the pain points for build-outs in rural markets at this juncture are the logistical challenges that varying states and municipalities have. “We’re working with INCOMPAS on the permitting process to get it to be more consistent and state agencies are helping with that,” said Mahoney. Logistical headaches range from securing pole attachments to elongated timelines for permitting. “What we’re trying to do is create an equal playing field with a similar set of rules no matter who you are and where you are. Streamlining those processes will make the build-out of fiber much more efficient and cost-effective, which will benefit the end users,” explained Mahoney.

Within Maine, FirstLight said it is working with officials in Albany Township, Bethel, Gilead, Greenwood, Newry and Woodstock on potential builds.

While all of FirstLight’s current and projected fiber expansions are self-funded, the operator is also vying for federal and state funds to expedite builds in rural markets. FirstLight has pending Middle Mile grant applications in all six states where it operates. News on those funds won’t come until March 2023.

FirstLight sees their differentiator in the fiber market to be that they’re a locally-based organization with staffers living and working in the Tier 2, Tier 3 and Tier 4 locales it serves. With six states under their territorial belt, FirstLight is not focused on adding more states into their fold at this juncture. “We see opportunities in our current footprint to expand, extend, and serve more clients,” Mahoney concluded.

**The story originally said, "According to the Maine Connectivity Authority, FirstLight has the ability to reach about 48% of the state’s homes with investments in fiber from their existing ILEC footprint."  But Maine Connectivity Authority said it has not stated that figure, nor can it verify it.