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In geekdom there are certain phrases which carry a magical aura. “Municipal broadband” is one of them.

Too bad it hardly ever happens.

In Bristol, a town of 3,000 people on Newfound Lake, a form of municipal broadband is happening. And a change in New Hampshire law means it might become much more common before long.

Bristol has voter permission to spend $98,500, and hopefully another $33,000 next year, combined with a $132,000 grant from the Northern Border Regional Commission, to build three miles of fiber backbone through its main business district.

The system, which will enter the design and engineering phase this spring, will create a town-owned “middle mile” of connectivity. Bristol hopes this will help it keep a major employer in town, lure other companies, make government more efficient, satisfy homeowners’ internet needs and maybe even improve cell-phone coverage.

The idea of the government building a fiber backbone to spur connectivity in rural areas is hardly new. Years ago I wrote about something called Network NH Now that used federal stimulus money to build a similar system in the Monadnock region, and in Maine there’s the wonderfully named Three Ring Binder, which binds together less-populated parts of the state with three loops of fiber connection.

But those examples and similar ones were put together by regional or public/private groups. For a town to do it alone – that’s different.

“This is definitely uncharted territory in New Hampshire,” said Nick Coates, town manager for Bristol.

Being uncharted can be confusing. For example, Coates points to the fact that the Northern Border grant “says the town has to own this network. We’re trying to figure out: What does ownership mean?”

Fiber optic cables hold 288 light-carrying glass strands, each of which can be a separate network connection. “Do we have to own all of them? Can we own three of them and not the rest?” Coates asked rhetorically.

Questions like that might become more common because the Legislature and Gov. Chris Sununu passed a law last summer that allows towns and cities to post bonds – that is, take out long-term loans – to build and own broadband connections, just as they post bonds to build schools or buy firetrucks.

Not having to scramble for grants and handouts could make municipal broadband a reality. As of this writing some communities in the Keene region are looking into the possibility, and we might see some requests showing up at Town Meeting season in March.

The idea of towns building their own internet connections has floated around New Hampshire for ages, with Hanover coming close to bonding its own system a number of years ago, but it has been blocked by lawmakers who balked at what they see as taxpayer competition to private enterprise. Some tech folks frown on municipal broadband for this reason, as well.

Concern about stepping on Adam Smith’s invisible hand led the state Legislature to handicap the new law: It’s only supposed to apply in places where there isn’t good broadband already.

The counter-argument is that in some locations – usually where homes and businesses are so spread out that the return on investment is low – the free market doesn’t want to build any internet at all, let alone decent broadband.

“Like every town in New Hampshire, we’re trying to keep our young people, redevelop our economy. You can’t do any of these things without the right infrastructure in place,” said Coates. “A competitive 21st century town needs good roads and bridges, good water and sewer, and good communications infrastructure.”

Further, even where there is broadband in New Hampshire it tends to be available only from the community’s single cable company and perhaps the phone company (sorry, satellite internet, but you don’t really cut it). Such a limited choice, says municipal broadband advocates, raises prices and hurts service.

Bristol’s plan is to run fiber cables on poles – unless they’re buried along with a proposed sewer expansion, also a possibility – for 1 gigabit-per-second connectivity. Among places it would link are government buildings like the town hall and the police station, the Freudenberg manufacturing plant that employs 450 people, and the high school, where it can connect with a network built by the local school system. They also have their eyes on IBeam, a broadband network among the state’s community colleges.

“We’re trying to plug into that, create a seamless network, so if a junior in high school wants to take a tech class at UNH they can,” said Coates. “Or Freudenberg, which is a German company; can have a network where they can do robotics training from Germany, right into the plant in Bristol.”

Surprisingly, adding wire connectivity could create a boost in wireless connectivity. The fiber can be used to provide mobile phone backhaul, taking signals from cell towers and moving them into the telephone network. Coates said cell phone companies haven’t wanted to build enough backhaul to make it possible to increase coverage within Bristol.

“Before the fiber grant, we were shouting in the dark with these carriers. Now we’re talking with a couple carriers seriously about where to put towers, maybe a microcell downtown,” he said. “It’s completely different.”

Admittedly, “getting Verizon to build more cell towers” doesn’t have the magical aura of “information wants to be free,” but these days we’ll take what we can get.

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