The New Hampshire Executive Council has unanimously agreed to accept $50 million from the federal government to help the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative (NHEC) to extend fiber-optic broadband to 73 of the 118 towns in its service area.

The landmark grant is the first project under the federal American Rescue Plan Act that directs $221 million to New Hampshire to bring high-speed internet to unserved and underserved communities.

Under the terms of the grant, NH Broadband, a new subsidiary of the Plymouth-based electric cooperative, will string fiber to the first of 23,259 homes and businesses by the end of this year. Ultimately all the locations will be “lit up” with fiber service by the end of 2026.

The Co-op will invest tens of millions of additional dollars in the project.

The state Department of Business and Economic Affairs awarded the federal grant after a competitive process that attracted seven bidders.

The road to this point began in Sandwich, where residents, frustrated with slow and unreliable internet over copper telephone wires, began searching for a solution. Ultimately the group – the genesis of NH Broadband Advocates – persuaded town officials to appoint a broadband advisory committee and push the electric co-op to get into the broadband business.

The NHEC board opposed the idea at first, but a strong vote on the issue in the Co-op’s 2020 election prompted a reconsideration. Up to now the Co-op has built broadband networks in Lempster, Acworth, Colebrook, Clarksville, Stewartstown and Sandwich. The Sandwich network is currently installing broadband in homes and businesses there.

Julie Dolan, chair of the Sandwich Broadband Advisory Committee, praised the “grassroots tenacity” of the committee and “the visionary leadership of the member-owned NHEC” for getting to this threshold.

The new service will bring residential customers speeds of at least 100 megabits-per-second (Mbps), for both data downloads and uploads, at a cost of $50 per month. Consumers can choose speeds of 1 or 2 gigabits-per-second at a cost of $80 or $100 a month.

Work has begun in Grafton County, where unserved and under-served Co-op members in 32 towns will be the first to benefit from the federal grant. The remaining 41 towns to be served under the grant are in Carroll, Belknap, Sullivan and Merrimack counties. The grant also funds construction of a fiber-optic “backbone” in Coos County that will support future expansion in the north country.

In its news release on the grant, NHEC says a “full schedule of towns and areas to be served will be made available as construction plans are confirmed.”

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