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New law could improve Internet access



Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Wednesday, June 13, 2018 6:8PM

A new state law has strengthened an opportunity for communities without access to high-speed internet.

Senate Bill 170 was signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu on May 30. The new law allows municipalities to bond for broadband infrastructure through public-private partnerships.

Previously, towns could only bond in areas not served by an existing provider. This new law allows communities to strengthen their existing networks.

“We’ve got so much going for us in the Monadnock Region, but if we can’t connect to the rest of the world that’s not advantageous,” said Peterborough State Rep. Peter Leishman. “When people move to a new area, good access to broadband is a huge check mark.”

Leishman, who has sponsored similar bills in the past, said he had been continually surprised when talking with constituents over the years about their ability, or lack thereof, to access broadband.

“When moving to a new area, people look at good schools, but good broadband access is also a huge checkmark for people,” said Leishman.

State Senator Jay V. Kahn of Keene – who introduced the bill – said the bill was comprised of four key changes: defining a location as one’s address rather than by a census tract, changing the definition of unserved to include people who do not reach the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) definition of broadband, expanding municipal bonding to include bonding for public-private partnerships, and the method of procurement of a bond – now allowing a request for proposal (RFP) process with municipally defined levels of service where all existing providers are notified.

“We took down the barriers... we just couldn’t use the statutes in their current form because the sections nullified each other,” Kahn said. “I’m glad we provided this resource to towns so they can have a stronger say over the services they are able to provide to their residents.”

Dublin, like many other municipalities throughout the Monadnock Region, has long been searching for a solution to its broadband problem.

Two years ago, faced with residents complaining about not having a good enough connection to be able to stream videos or even send and receive emails, Dublin formed a broadband committee to research possible solutions.

Carol Monroe, a member of the committee, said at an Oct. meeting she knows a Dublin resident who drives to Peterborough to use the Wi-Fi at the Peterborough Town Library because they cannot et adequate serve in their home.

Monroe said recently the committee is currently regrouping as a previous study was not comprehensive enough to make a recommendation to the town. The committee is now working to fill in the informational gaps not provided in the study to determine the best option for the town moving forward.

“It’s too early to tell [if bonding will be the best solution,] but more options for financing is a good thing,” said Monroe. “In the end, this is another opportunity for us. It establishes a process that isn’t impossible for towns to follow.”

Unlike with previously proposed legislation, the bill was able to garner the support of industry providers in the state like Comcast and Consolidated Communications.

“This is an important tool for cities and towns to reach unserved communities,” said Timothy Wilkerson, vice president and policy counsel for the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association (NECTA), a regional trade association that represents cable telecommunications companies like Comcast throughout New England.

Wilkerson said one of the salient points of Senate Bill 170 was that it clearly defined an “unserved” municipality, which is defined as the FCC’s defined rate of transmission – currently a minimum of 25 Mbps for download and 3 Mbps upload.

Wilkerson also praised the opportunity for pubic/private partnerships, meaning municipalities can help pay for the initial build out of the infrastructure with the private company stepping in to maintain the network in the future.

“This isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s another tool in the toolbox,” said Wilkerson.

Consolidated Communications Senior Director of Government Relations Ellen Scarponi also praised the bill as one that bridged the gap among all involved parties.

“All stakeholders worked together on this, which is really unique,” said Scarponi.

Scarponi said Consolidated Communications, much like other companies, doesn’t have the capital to provide broadband to everyone throughout New Hampshire and other states they serve. Creating broadband infrastructure is a costly endeavor, she said.

It costs about “$30,000 to light up a mile” of fiber, according to Scarponi, a challenge to companies trying to provide broadband to areas of the state that don’t have the population density to get a proper return on investment.

Jaffrey Select Board chairman Frank Sterling – who also represents Dublin, Jaffrey, Rindge, Fitzwilliam, Harrisville, and Roxbury as a state rep. – said the board has not yet considered bonding for broadband infrastructure, but admitted that it could be an avenue for the town if there was enough interest.

“There are areas in town stuck with Fairpoint DSL, which is not acceptable,” said Sterling. “It’s not anything we are looking to do tomorrow, or even for March.”

Phil Motta, chairman of Rindge’s Teltech Committee, said he hopes the new law presents new and better broadband services to the region.

“If this new law helps to provide broadband services to the unserved, and also better services to the underserved then it may be a good thing,” said Motta, in an email. “… Consumers are best served by having multiple good options available to them. Today, too many areas don’t have any good options. Consumers want fair pricing, faster speeds, and reliable service. The demand for high speed connectivity will only increase in the future.”

Nicholas Handy can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or nhandy@ledgertranscript.com. He is also on Twitter @nhandyMLT.