Stories of the Year: Towns forge ahead with municipal broadband projects

  • Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 12/28/2020 5:15:18 PM

Fast, reliable internet services have become more crucial than ever, with schools and work moving online due to COVID-19. Residents in Dublin, Mason and Rindge are eagerly awaiting the completion of fiber internet installation, while the towns of Jaffrey and Greenfield are just starting their processes, hoping to be in the same place next year.

Broadband, as its defined federally, allows for up to 25 megabits of download speed and three megabits of upload speed. Lack of high speed internet has become a problem many communities are struggling with, as both businesses and everyday residents are increasingly looking to move into areas with broadband access, as more of their daily life moves online.

Dublin and Rindge both approved bonds for their internet infrastructure processes, as some of the first towns to jump on an opportunity presented by the recent passing of Senate Bill 170, which allows towns to bond to pay for public-private partnerships for better internet services.

In March, Rindge approved a $2.6 million bond, and Dublin a $1.3 million bond to extend fiber internet to every address in town. In both cases, Consolidated Communications won the contract to provide services, and the bonds will be paid back not through tax dollars, but a capped monthly service fee for those who sign up for the fiber service.

With no anticipated tax impact, both towns were able to easily secure the super majority needed to pass a bond article, and seeing their success, other local towns have begun the work to follow in their wake.

Mason was in the process of preparing their own warrant article, planning for it to be included in next March’s Town Meeting. So when federal funding for broadband expansion came down the pipe as part of COVID-19 relief efforts, Mason was in a good position to be selected for some of those funds.

Of the $3.5 million awarded to Consolidated Communications for rural broadband builds, Mason received $1.4 million to cover every address in town.

And with a December deadline attached to the funding, though Mason started its efforts several months after Rindge and Dublin, it is likely to be among the first to see its project come to completion, with the construction phase already complete.

For Mason, the network build-outs were timely, with many residents continuing to work remotely and schools transitioning to virtual learning, particularly with the shut-down into January of Milford schools where Mason middle and high schoolers attend.

“When our schools went entirely remote a few weeks ago, there were numerous families with concerns, especially those without any Internet options besides high-latency, data-capped satellite,” said Bill Schongar, chair of the Mason Broadband Committee. “Knowing fast and affordable Internet services would soon be available to them was the best holiday gift they could ask for.”

Other towns in the area are anticipating their own broadband buildouts.

Greenfield has already selected a proposal for broadband infrastructure from Consolidated Communications and will be proposing a $1.5 million bond to taxpayers in March.

Tom Bascom, of the Greenfield Broadband Committee, said it’s not just speed that people want from their internet – it’s reliability, too.

“It’s absolutely critical,” Bascom said. “People focus a lot on the speed, which is important, but the other thing is reliability. The DSL service in some areas is decripit. It’s out of service all the time, and it takes forever to fix. A lot of people are unhappy with reliability as much as speed.”

Jaffrey has requested proposals from broadband providers, in one of the final steps before putting together a warrant article they hope to put before voters in March. Peterborough is hot on their heels, still gathering information about broadband coverage, and expecting to request proposals in January, for a warrant article in May.

“With the pandemic, so many people moved to working from home, and the number of calls we got at the town level about internet and insufficient broadband increased exponentially,” Peterborough Community and Economic Development Coordinator Karen Hatcher said. “We knew it was a problem before, but we really became aware because of the pressure the pandemic put on the system.”

Hatcher said the model that has worked for Rindge and Dublin, with a bond paid back through a user fee rather than tax dollars is ideal for a community like Peterborough, which does have high speed coverage in its town center, but has struggled for years to reach the residents in the more far-flung parts of town.

“I think that’s very attractive. Why wouldn’t I, as a property owner who has good coverage, vote no, if I don’t have to pay for it, and I can help my neighbor get the same access I have. I think it’s a very attractive way to go, and we’re seeing other towns do it very successfully,” Hatcher said.

Rindge, Dublin and Mason are nearing the stage where customers can purchase plans, and have individual pages set up with Consolidated Communications for customers to sign up for additional information, available at consolidatedcommunications.com/Rindge, consolidatedcommunications.com/Dublin or consolidatedcommunications.com/Mason.


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