Public broadband drive

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Last modified: 3/14/2016 6:47:04 PM
The Monadnock region is not alone in the municipal movement to expand broadband. Tired of waiting for the private Internet service providers, rural communities throughout the country are moving ahead, creating public and public-private partnerships to accomplish their goals of economic development with high-speed Internet. And though the Federal Communications Commission has come out on their side, some say government shouldn’t compete with private industry.

The municipal broadband movement, backed by area legislators, suffered a blow Thursday when the N.H. House killed a bill, 188 to 142, that would have lifted restrictions for towns that want to bond for broadband Internet infrastructure. Those who opposed the bill, including John Hunt (R-Rindge), challenged government interference in what they say should be private enterprise.

“We would much rather have private industry, private infrastructure,” Hunt said. “It’s a disincentive.”

Frank Edelblut (R-Wilton) also voted to kill the bill, though he said he sympathizes with the frustration of not having high-speed Internet, as Wilton just got fiber from TDS this year. “The concern I had was getting the municipalities on the hook for these large projects,” he said.

Currently, municipalities are prohibited from building broadband networks in areas served by an existing broadband carrier or provider. The trouble is broadband services in rural areas are not universally available.

In Dublin, for example, telecommunications consultant Carole Monroe said broadband is available, but comes with a hefty price tag. Yankee Publishing and Dublin School are the only locations, she said, that have the service, because Fairpoint charges customers to run fiber to their location.

“I can’t work from my home in Dublin,” Monroe said. “DSL can’t deliver.”

And in Peterborough, where broadband is available in places, Monroe said Comcast does not offer business service, “meaning there are no guarantees.”

“Small businesses are what run the economy in New Hampshire,” she said. “We could be left behind if we’re not careful.”

There’s been speculation that the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund will spur commercial Internet expansion. But there’s skepticism, too. “They’re going to build a whole lot more DSL — I’m not sure that’s what we need,” Monroe said about a company in New Hampshire that’s been allocated such funds.



Municipal broadband 
projects in other states

But there may still be hope for rural New Hampshire, if the surge in community broadband projects in other states is any indication.

Last year, the FCC preempted laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that blocked municipal service providers in Wilson and Chattanooga from expanding their broadband services to neighboring communities, where private service providers offer low Internet speeds. Both North Carolina and Tennessee state officials have challenged the controversial FCC order.

“There is a clear conflict, the order finds, between Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which directs the FCC to take action to remove barriers to broadband investment and competition, and provisions of the Tennessee and North Carolina law that erect barriers to expansion of service into surrounding communities, including unserved and underserved areas,” the FCC’s statement from Feb. 26, 2015, reads. “The Order concludes that preemption will speed broadband investment, increase competition, and serve the public interest.”

The FCC acknowledged the economic advantages that broadband brought the two communities: “The networks in both areas have attracted major employers, including Amazon and Volkswagen in Chattanooga, and Exodus FX, Regency Interactive, and WHIG TV in Wilson. Wilson’s system also provides free Wi-Fi downtown.”

Closer to home, municipal broadband projects are underway in Massachusetts and Vermont, too.

Monroe is CEO of ECFiber.net, a municipal utility building a fiber-optic network to deliver high-speed Internet to 24 member towns. And in Leverett, Massachusetts, a town of just 2,000 residents, went live with its municipal broadband network a year ago to great fanfare.

But those opposed to such public initiatives point to projects that are struggling and/or accumulating millions of dollars in debt without the expected returns.



The opposition

Peter Leishman (D-Peterborough), who sponsored the killed broadband bill at the behest of Peterborough town officials, said opponents at the State House pointed to the municipal Burlington Telecom project, which went into debt, as an example of how things can go wrong. One legislator said it’s the Legislature’s job to protect citizens from such blunders.

“I said, “What’s the harm in letting the citizens decide for the themselves,’” Leishman said, adding that support and opposition for the bill did not run along party lines, with a number of local Republicans speaking in favor, Rep. James Coffey (R-New Ipswich) among them.

Of those who were against the bill, Leishman said, “They just don’t think government should be competing with private industry, like Fairpoint and Comcast,” both of which told legislators the bill was unfair and would put them out of business.

The Business and Industry Association also came out against lifting the restriction on municipal broadband projects.

Monroe said those involved with developing municipal and other public-private partnerships for broadband access have learned from the mistakes of the early initiatives, and that it isn’t stopping them from pushing forward.

“There are hundreds of municipalities doing this, so Peterborough wouldn’t be alone,” she said.


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