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Pandemic highlights need for universal broadband internet

  • Staff photo by Ben Conant

​​​​​​​Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 5/5/2020 4:36:10 PM

The digital divide that separates people with access to high-speed internet connections from those with slower technology such as satellite, cable and DSL has become more pronounced with the COVID-19 pandemic.

With many businesses shut down and households under stay-home orders, New Hampshire residents are learning, working and accessing health care online. Yet for households and businesses without high-speed broadband these options can be frustrating and ineffective, if they’re available at all.

“This COVID-19 virus has laid bare the challenges when you don’t have universal broadband. The need has always been there; this just made it front and center,” said Matt Dunne, president of the Center for Rural Innovation in Hartland, Vermont.

Since the pandemic has highlighted the need for nationwide broadband internet, Dunne hopes there will be a national call to action, just like there was to bring universal electricity to rural New Hampshire in the 1940s, he said.

Before the coronavirus, efforts were underway on the national, state and local level to bring high-speed internet to underserved rural areas, including Chesterfield and Lyme, New Hampshire. But now, the need has taken on a new urgency. Last Thursday, Democrats in Congress said they would seek $80 billion in the next coronavirus relief package to build high-speed internet connections across the U.S.

In New Hampshire, Democrats want to use $60 million of the $1.25 billion the state is receiving under the CARES Act to facilitate bringing high-speed internet to underserved areas, said State Senator Jeanne Dietsch, D-Peterborough. Of that amount, $40 million would be for infrastructure.

“The need is so obvious,” Dietsch said. “With libraries closed, many are driving to school parking lots to sit in their cars to get high-speed internet (from the school.)”

Legislation under consideration in the New Hampshire Senate would remove some barriers small towns have to gaining broadband by allowing for the creation of “communication districts.” This regional approach has been in use for years in Vermont, and could bring several towns together to help pay for the needed upgrades. Dietsch said Senate Bill 457, focused on communication districts, will be heard by the Election Law and Municipal Affairs committee in the coming weeks. She was told by the committee chairwoman it is on the “priority list.”

“If small towns have to go it alone, they will get left behind,” said Carol Monroe of Dublin, chairwoman of the Board of Directors of Valley.Net, an organization that advocates for universal and effective internet service in the Upper Valley. “The best thing about a district is it can include towns big and small.”

This is just one way the state legislature is focused on helping rural areas to build high-speed internet infrastructure. Last year, legislation was passed into law allowing municipalities to issue long-term bonds to finance infrastructure build out for broadband.

A second bill, Senate bill 559, now working its way through the New Hampshire Legislature will require all providers to respond to a “request for information” that identifies underserved areas in a municipality. Once the information is received a municipality can issue a request for proposals to create a public-private partnership for the “deployment of broadband infrastructure,” the bill says. This is meant to address the problem of communities having high-speed internet through cable in parts of town with dense populations, but not in the outlying areas. Cable companies are resistant to building out service to these areas because of the cost.

For Monroe, of Dublin, the frustrations of DSL connections are personal: she struggles with slow internet daily at her home.

“I do geo-mapping and it is nearly impossible. When I videoconference you can tell my connection is bad,” Monroe said, explaining that images are blurry. “If you are doing a business, what sort of presentation will that be with blurry images?”

The Federal Communications Commission defines high-speed internet at 25 megabits per second download and 3 mbps upload, Monroe said. But realistically that is completely insufficient, particularly during the pandemic, when multiple devices are likely in use in a home by parents and children. Most DSL connections can maybe do up to 15 mbps and can get to 25 with some line modifications, Monroe said, adding that one’s proximity to the equipment box on the street correlates to how good the connection is.

Ideally, people should have a connection with 250 mbps each way to provide the speed and reliability needed in homes with multiple devices in use, Dunne said Fiber optic cable is needed to achieve that speed.

“Fiber optic cable to the home is really the long-term solution,” he said.

Some towns have found a solution to the problem of internet access, and can serve as models for other communities, Dunne said. Chesterfield, a town of 3,500, partnered with Consolidated Communications to bring fiber-optic to all homes. The project was financed with the issuance of long-term bonds and ownership eventually will go to the phone company. In Lyme, investors in the town of 1,700 came up with the money and will own the service, LymeFiber.

“These dispel the myth it can’t be done in rural areas,” said Dunne, whose organization will use a grant to begin planning projects with the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission and Carroll County.

Dunne cautioned that increasing access to broadband internet is not an overnight process and can sometimes take years to complete. The key, he said, is to consider all options and to develop a plan and business model that is based on current service. Municipalities can then seek the appropriate funding through long-term borrowing, grants or fees.

A good first step is reaching out to the municipal government, the public utilities commission in New Hampshire, the existing service providers along with state legislators to get the ball rolling, he said.

“If we can do it in rural Stockbridge, Vt., we can do it anywhere,” Dunne said.

 

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.


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