The long-stalled effort to bring fast internet to rural towns in New Hampshire is getting a new look these days. Make that a bunch of new looks.
“Folks have finally realized that existing carriers are not going to give it to them. If they want something in their town they’re going to have to do it themselves. People are on board – that’s what is new, and I’m seeing happen over the last five years,” said Carole Monroe, project manager for perhaps the most unusual of these efforts, called LymeFiber. “People are being creative about this.”
One move hoping to spur creativity is a proposed law, Senate Bill 2811, by Sen. Jeanne Dietsch, D-Peterborough, that would establish “communications districts” in New Hampshire, allowing communities to band together to pay for and operate broadband networks that cross town lines
“It’s very similar to a sewer district,” said Dietsch. “It can be financed by grants, loans, bonds and user fees, but not taxation. … The idea is to build out a certain level, then revenues from that will help you build the next level.”
Dietsch said towns would not be internet service providers but would contract with others to operate networks. “The purpose of this is not to compete with providers,” she said.
Assuming it passes into law, Carroll County Broadband, a loose network of towns in that county, is “looking at being the rollout for this. They would be the model and the guinea pig,” Dietsch said.
As the name implies, LymeFiber is a project to bring fiber-optic cables carrying broadband internet to the 1,700-person town of Lyme, on the Connecticut River north of Hanover. Construction is slated to begin next year, stringing cables to almost every home in town.
“100% is our goal. It’s going to be real close to that; the only qualification is there are places where your utilities come from the adjoining town. It’s possible we may not be able to serve them. And there are a few who are completely off-grid,” said Stephen Campbell, a member of the Committee for Fiber Optics in Lyme. That group has been working to bring broadband to town for close to a decade.
The service will be owned by investors, all Lyme residents, and is receiving no taxpayer money or town-backed bonds. “There’s no way Lyme could drop 2 or 3 million dollars for this,” Campbell said.
“They expect to get a return. It’s not a donation, it’s an investment – but they understood that it’s going to be a lower return,” he said. The investors stepped up, he said, because the phone company wouldn’t and Lyme has no cable TV. “It doesn’t make economic sense for the incumbent carriers to provide this.”
LymeFiber will be operated under contract by Valley.Net, a Vermont non-profit that evolved from a 24-town district dating back to the days of dial-up internet.
Other rural parts of the state are trying to lure broadband, too. The 1,100-person town of Sandwich, for example, has issued a Request for Information from bidders to provide broadband in town, hopefully without any taxpayer investment.
Then there’s Chesterfield, a small town west of Keene which has drawn attention for its innovative deal with phone company Consolidated Communications. Starting next year CCI will string fiber-optic to all homes in that town of 3,500, which approved a $1.8 million bond to pay for part of the work.
That bond was possible because the state Legislature changed state law last year, allowing communities to take on long-term debt to build broadband if they had no good alternatives, which usually means that there’s no cable television franchise bringing internet to the town.
The phone company will eventually own Chesterfield’s fiber network, whereas the Lyme network will be owned by the local investors.
“I think the fact that they succeeded is an incentive for others to go out and try. Before, the feeling was: ‘I don’t even know how to start’,” said Dietsch. “I think people are being more aggressive about it, are willing to go out and champion something.”
The town of Dublin, east of Keene, has been inspired by Chesterfield’s project to look into its options, said Monroe, and the result reflects how the picture for rural broadband is changing.
“They have gotten three responses” including feelers from companies in Maine and New Jersey, said Monroe. “Each of them had a different way of looking at this. It made me realize there are many solutions. Some include bonding, some include USDA money. One was that the town would have some skin in the game, then the company would provide the rest and lease it back.”
Monroe said the creation of communication districts, a model that has been employed in Vermont for years, could make a big difference. “I think it’s important to allow for these combinations of towns so that we don’t leave anybody unserved. If we do it on a town-by-town basis, it will take us 20 years or more but if we do it as a district, it will take us less time,” she said.
As for LymeFiber, Monroe said Valley.Net would be open to expanding up and down the river into underserved parts of Hanover and Orford – “we’re leaving enough fiber at those borders to be able to do that” – although not toward Newfound Lake because New Hampshire’s utility pole connections tend to run north-south rather than east-west, just like our major roads.
Getting connections to hook cables onto utility poles is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the big obstacles to creating new fiber-optic broadband networks. Dietsch said that because New Hampshire has not adopted FCC authority in this area we did not automatically adopt new “make-ready” rules designed to speed up such connections.