Alternatives to municipal bonding discussed in broadband roundtable with Senator Hassan in Keene

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/2/2020 9:24:20 PM

Local municipal broadband champions shared their experiences with Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) at a recent roundtable in Keene. Hassan spoke on federal policy in the pipeline and took feedback from representatives from Peterborough and other communities pursuing municipal broadband.

“It was pretty interesting,” Peterborough Selectman Bill Taylor said of the meeting. Attendees included State Senator Jeanne Dietsch, representatives from the Southwest Regional Planning Commission, internet companies WiValley and Consolidated Communications, and representatives from other towns working on broadband deals including Chesterfield, which was the first town to take advantage of SB 170, a bill which allows towns to pass bonds to improve their internet infrastructure for areas of town that are underserved. Voters in Dublin and Rindge are set to weigh in on municipal internet bonds at town meeting this year.

Taylor said he suggested that the Senator consider taking town governments out of the internet bonding process.

“[In] the small towns, all of us are volunteers,” Taylor said, and that he considered it a wasted two years of meetings and public notifications if a broadband bond fails at a town meeting. “I don’t see a reason why you can’t just take us out of it,” he said, and offer funds for municipal broadband directly from the government. Circumventing town governments could encourage more common-sense layouts of fiber internet infrastructure, Taylor said. “For them to stop at an imaginary border line is ridiculous,” he said, when there might be needy residents farther down the same road in the next town.

When asked about Sen. Hassan’s response to the suggestion, a representative from the Senator’s office pointed out two existing programs Hassan has supported that offer broadband funds directly to service providers: The FCC Connect America Fund subsidizes the cost of operating and extending broadband infrastructure to serve consumers and small businesses in rural, high-cost areas. Another program, the United States Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program, offers grants, loans, and loan/grant combinations for new or upgraded broadband service in areas where at least 90% of households do not have adequate broadband.

After the roundtable, Taylor said he asked the representatives from Consolidated Communications and WiValley if the three of them could discuss the possibility of working out a deal for broadband internet in Peterborough without a municipal bond. They seemed amenable, Taylor said, and that he hopes to meet with them in the coming weeks. “Peterborough’s different,” Taylor said, and they might have more leverage with Consolidated Communications in comparison to neighboring towns. “I don’t know if it’ll work, but that’s what I’m working on,” he said.

Taylor said it was promising to observe the Senator’s open attitude towards new ideas from the people on the ground. “It seemed like they’re working constantly to adjust the programs to meet the needs of these rural communities,” he said.

“It was amazing ... how much was packed into that hour,” Henry Underwood, the GIS specialist and planner from the Southwestern Regional Planning Commission said. The SWRPC helped to find people available for the meeting, he said, many of which participate in the organization’s Monadnock Broadband meetings. “There was a ton shared,” he said, and the Senator agreed several times to share parts of the conversation with her policy staff. 

“The lack of access to reliable, high-speed internet is a concern that I hear about in every corner of our state, particularly our more rural areas,” Senator Hassan said after the meeting. “In the 21st century innovation economy, access to broadband is critical to the success of our students, businesses, and overall quality of life. I was glad to talk with Monadnock Region leaders about ways we can continue to work together to expand broadband access to communities. I will continue working across the aisle to bring more resources to our state to help with broadband infrastructure and to ensure that the Federal Communication Commission’s broadband maps accurately reflect on-the-ground coverage so that more New Hampshire communities can become eligible for federal broadband funding.”

The Senator has introduced two bills supporting rural broadband projects in the past year with Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). The Rural Broadband Investment Tax Credit Act would create a federal tax credit that states and localities could direct toward rural broadband projects.

The Rural Broadband Financing Flexibility Act would allow state and local governments to issue tax-exempt bonds to finance public-private rural broadband projects, and allow the federal government to assist state and local governments in bond payments. Hassan has also supported several measures aimed at insuring Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) broadband maps more accurately reflect on-the-ground coverage. The maps are used to determine eligibility for billions of dollars in federal funding to expand both wired and wireless broadband.

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