There was a telling moment in a Friday web discussion held by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen about how the state should take advantage of millions of dollars in new federal funding for high-speed internet, and it came right at the very beginning.
“Michelle (Cota) is not in the Manchester office because we don’t have enough bandwidth to have both her and me here,” Shaheen told the dozen participants as the Zoom call began. Cota, who is Shaheen’s special assistant for policy, called in from her home.
“It speaks to the challenges that people are facing all across New Hampshire,” Shaheen said.
Increasing capacity and bringing broadband with what was repeatedly called “21st-century speeds” to underserved parts of the country is the goal of the broadband funding section of the Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress last month. Shaheen was a lead negotiator on the broadband section of the bill.
A minimum of $100 million, and probably much more, will be available to New Hampshire, but will require a lot of planning and preparation on the part of municipalities, organizations and other groups to obtain it. Friday’s discussion showed that some surprising complications exist, some as simple as maps.
The federal government has long measured broadband access by census block, a physical measure that can include hundreds of residences.
“That’s a pretty course unit of analysis,” said David Justice, director of the NH GRANIT program at UNH, which creates and hosts GIS maps of the state.
If even a single residence in a census block has commercial internet service from a phone or cable company that meets the Federal Communication Commission definition of broadband – 25 megabits download, 3 megabits upload – then the entire block is said to have broadband. This can get in the way of using federal funds to bring high-speed internet to an area because funding is often blocked or limited if it is seen to compete with existing private service.
This problem has stalled well-publicized plans to expand broadband in Grafton County, said Nik Coates, town administrator of Bristol and a prominent proponent of government-supported broadband in the state.
“Providers have challenged our project on over 3000 census blocks,” Coates said.
It’s difficult to rebut the challenge, to show that broadband is lacking in areas, he added, because “the data that we have is not good. The best thing we were able to do is grab a survey.”
“There’s a very real possibility of a project being denied because of a lack of data,” Coates said.
New maps of broadband access are being drawn up by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is part of the Department of Commerce, distinct from the FCC. They are expected to be released next year and provide a much finer-grained picture.
“There’s real concern about mapping. That’s why the decision was made to wait for the new maps. Hopefully that will give us better data,” Shaheen said.
The Investment and Jobs Act includes $42 billion for states to deploy broadband, with at least $100 million going to every state has long as it submits a plan for using the funds. This is also paying for the new broadband maps.
Another $14 billion is the affordable connectivity benefit that provides up to $30 a month toward broadband for eligible households.
It also includes $1 billion in competitive grants for building “middle mile” fiber optic connections.
Friday’s wide-ranging discussion emphasized the need to use the money to ensure that poorer communities get served, to balance what speakers said was commercial Internet providers’ habit of “cherry-picking” wealthier towns and neighborhoods and leaving the rest behidn.
Also emphasized was broadband’s importance in making telehealth possible, allowing medical visits and advice, even diagnosis, over the internet.
“One of the few positive stories from COVID is a recognition of what a difference telehealth has made for people,” said Shaheen.