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Spurred by a 2018 change in state law and new private investment, the state’s biggest phone company is building fiber-optic connections to tens of thousands of homes in southern New Hampshire, the most extensive expansion of fast internet that rural New Hampshire has seen in many years.

“The greater Cheshire County area is an amazing rural broadband success story now. … We’re in the Seacoast, the southeast part of the state. All in all, we’re building to 144,000 homes this year,” said Eric Garr, president of consumer and small business services for Consolidated Communications.

Consolidated is stringing fiber-optic cables on poles and connecting them to subscribers’ homes in a number of towns and cities and offering synchronous gigabit service, or up to 1,000 megabits both upload and download, for $70 a month.

That’s faster, often much faster, than anything currently available to most residences and online reports from customers indicate that the system’s speeds have lived up to expectation.

In most communities the construction is partly supported by the town issuing a long-term bond, which gets paid back out of subscribers’ fees.

“I think it’s been a really bright star for many communities. There are some 20 towns in negotiations right now, seeking to bond and partner with Consolidated,” said Carol Miller, who ran an internet service provider and was the state’s Director of Broadband Technology before retiring. She is now Director of Broadband Initiatives with the National Collaborative for Digital Equity.

Consolidated’s build-out started two years ago in the small town of Chesterfield, near Keene, and has picked up steam despite the pandemic. In fact, pandemic lock-downs may be spurring it: “What we’ve all lived through in the past year is the best argument for broadband,” said Garr.

From Consolidated’s point of view, a major spurt was last year’s $425 million investment by Searchlight Capital Partners, a private investment firm.

“We are deploying that money, much of it in New Hampshire,” said Garr. “We have over 60 crews working in Northern New England.”

Consolidated, which provides landline service for most of the state including most of the Concord region, eventually plans to have fiber-to-the-home offering synchronous gigabit Internet for about 70% of the area it covers in the three Northern New England states, somewhere around 1.2 million residences. Garr said there’s no schedule yet for when the high-speed service will come to Concord. 

Financial and ownership details of the expansion can differ. In more densely populated places like Keene, where there are enough customers per mile, Consolidated builds and operates the system itself.

In more rural towns a portion of the installation cost is paid by the community through 20-year bonds, which must be approved by annual meeting and are paid off through a charge to broadband subscribers. Usually, the town will own the system after the bond is paid off, although details differ.

This process was made possible by the passage of SB170 in 2018, which made it much easier for towns to use bonds for broadband, just as they are used for road construction and other big capital projects. That use had been opposed for years by telephone companies and cable who argued that governments should not compete with private industry but their slowness in expanding fast internet beyond well-populated areas finally overcame that objection.

Consolidated benefits from being the phone company, which means it already leases space on utility poles – a problem that has thwarted a number of other independent attempts to spread broadband – and has an extensive data base of customers.

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