Federal broadband internet funds give hope to towns without municipal bonds

  • Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Sen. Maggie Hassan during a visit to ConVal High to discuss technology in 2017. Hassan successfully pushed for a boost to municipal broadband efforts to be added to the infrastructure bill that was passed by the Senate on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 8/11/2021 4:17:07 PM

Incoming federal funds are a ray of hope for towns that remain shut out of achieving broadband internet for every residence. Towns like Hancock and Francestown might finally be able to secure high speed internet for their underserved residents through newly available monies from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the American Rescue Plan Act, and anticipated funds via the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill, which cleared the Senate on Monday.

“The small, rural towns that have small populations are getting really left by the wayside,” Hancock Telecommunications Committee chair Mollie Miller said. Internet service providers won’t respond to requests for proposals if a broadband project doesn’t fit into their business model, Miller said, and many grants require a letter of commitment from a service provider in order for a town to become eligible. It’s a Catch-22, Miller said. “If you can’t get a service provider to apply with you… you can’t access the money,” she said.

Thirty-three percent of Hancock’s residences and 14% of Francestown’s residences meet the FCC’s definition of “unserved” by broadband internet, she said. That’s made it hard for them to find internet service providers interested in municipal bonding, which has worked for towns with a higher percentage of “unserved” households, such as neighboring towns Dublin and Greenfield, which have secured bonds with Consolidated Communications.

Grants are also difficult, since so many funding sources prioritize projects by the number of people served, Miller said. That’s a non-starter for areas of town that might have three or four houses per mile, she said. Despite this, Miller and Francestown Broadband Committee chair Alfred Eisenberg are tentatively optimistic about the incoming federal funding opportunities. “It looks like it should be good,” Eisenberg said of the infrastructure bill. “We’ll see what happens.”

Collaborating with other towns and connecting with smaller internet service providers are two strategies broadband advocates in Hancock and Francestown are employing to improve their chances of landing broadband contracts and monies. The two towns have been working together in hopes of increasing their appeal to both internet service providers and funding sources, Miller said. Recently, they were greenlit by their respective Select Boards to submit a joint application for a National Telecommunications and Information Administration grant. They’ve also been in talks with smaller, “hungrier” internet providers, Miller said. Internet provider Hub66 expressed interest in working with the two towns on their NTIA grant, according to Hancock Telecommunications Committee meeting minutes from Aug. 2. There’s potential for collaboration with other area towns as they look ahead to the next federal grants in the pipeline, Eisenberg said.

Although state-level support for broadband has been lacking, New Hampshire Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan have been “really receptive” to the broadband issue, Miller said.

“Granite Staters rely on high-speed internet for everything from completing their school work to starting an innovative small business – broadband is a necessity in the 21st century economy,” Sen. Hassan said. “I am pleased to have helped lead efforts to secure historic funding for affordable high speed internet in the bipartisan package that will help communities across New Hampshire thrive.”

The federal infrastructure bill, a “once-in-a-generation” infrastructure investment, as Hassan characterized it, sets aside $65 billion for broadband internet.

“Congress has talked about truly modernizing our nation’s infrastructure for as long as we can remember. The United States Senate delivered so that we can finally give the American people the safe, reliable, and modern infrastructure they deserve,” Sen. Shaheen said in a statement upon its passing Senate. The bill must still pass the House before becoming law.

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