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Mason requests proposals for broadband buildout

  • Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 6/29/2020 4:28:01 PM

The town of Mason has requested proposals from internet providers to provide plans to build town-wide broadband infrastructure, which could be put before voters next year.

Mason is one of several towns that have jumped on an opportunity provided by a bill passed two years ago, which allows towns to enter into partnerships with private companies to bond for better internet. Rural communities, which have been largely left by the wayside by internet companies looking for high-population areas to get the most return on their investment, have in particular been interested in getting their residents onto a system that provides broadband speeds.

COVID-19, which caused students and the workforce alike to telecommute at unprecedented rates, has only heightened awareness of how integral the internet has become in our lives, Mason Broadband Committee member Mike Judge said.

“We’ve had people screaming for it,” Judge said. “People are working from home, trying to teach from home. People are driving to Dunkin Donuts to jump on a work call. That’s how impactful it is on people’s lives.”

The bill provides towns the ability to work with internet providers specifically to help connect areas that are considered “underserved” – specifically, that means having access to internet speeds of under 25 MPS per second in upload, or 3 MPS per second in download speeds.

For Mason, that’s most of the town, Judge said. Out of the 685 addresses in Mason, 592 are “underserved” – about 86 percent.

Judge said the Broadband Committee has requested all the proposals they receive cover all the underserved addresses.

“We don’t want any part of the town left behind, which is a big challenge, topographically, and with how spread out Mason is,” Judge said. “We understand we’re going to be potentially paying a lot to do this, but our intent isn’t to cut anyone out for a better price.”

Rindge and Dublin have already undergone the same process Mason is undertaking, and both towns approved bonds for fiber internet builds overwhelmingly in March.

Rindge TelTech Committee Chair Phil Motta said Tuesday there haven’t been any delays in the project due to COVID-19, and the town has received the state approvals it needs to purchase the bond in July, with construction to start within 30 days of securing the funding. Consolidated Communications, the company which secured the contract for both Dublin and Rindge’s internet projects, has indicated they’re prepared to move forward in that time frame.

CARES Act provides funds for broadband improvement

New Hampshire’s portion of the CARES Act includes about $50 million which has been set aside specifically for the purpose of increasing access to broadband services across the state in quick order.

The funds are only available for projects which can be completed in the next six months, but are available for projects that are already planned, but haven’t started construction yet. Communities which have already approved funds for broadband projects are looking into whether some of that money may be available for them.

Rindge Town Administrator Sara Gravell said the town is in talks with Consolidated Communications about whether a portion of the town’s upcoming buildout of broadband fiber could be covered by the available grants. While only the portion built between August and December would qualify to be covered, Gravell said if there is the opportunity to use some of the CARES funds to reduce Rindge’s bond, they will be applying.

“I have been in communications with Consolidated Communications, and it’s something we’re definitely looking into. We’re still waiting for some information to see if we’re eligible, but if we are, that’s something we’ll take advantage of,” Gravell said.

In Francestown, Broadband committee chair Alfred Eisenberg is calling Comcast every day to see if they can apply for CARES act funds, Town Administrator Jamie Pike said. The town designed more than a mile of fiber network for its northwest corner two years ago, Pike said, but never moved on it because it would cost $60,000 total, and Comcast offered to pay half. Although Comcast has not yet agreed to apply to fund the project, Pike said the town's broadband committee was hoping for a conference call later in the week.

Francestown's Select Board approved the mailing of a town-wide broadband survey at their meeting last Monday. The survey addresses residents' current and desired internet access, as well as what they've used internet for as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The results will come in too late to affect the CARES act funds, Pike said.

The deadline to apply for the CARES Act funds is short. All applications must be in by July 2, and all projects approved must be complete by the end of December of 2020. Judge said that turnaround is too short for any major projects in Mason, but the committee is looking into whether Mason may qualify for some funds to prepare for a future project, such as a communications building.

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