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Broadband funds may not help rural areas much

  • Cables connecting phone, cable and Internet service come out of a wall connector in the home space exploration engineering office of Mike Loucks Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Friday Harbor, Wash., in the San Juan Islands. Loucks lost Internet and phone service during a 10-day outage on the island in 2013. Other regions around the country also have fallen dark in recent years, sometimes for days at a time, because of failures or accidents affecting the nation’s broadband infrastructure. The failures have revealed vulnerabilities in the backbone of the nation’s high-speed Internet highway, which often lacks the detour routes necessary to quickly restore service when outages occur outside of major cities. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Elaine Thompson

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/28/2020 5:23:10 PM

The $50 million in CARES Act funds intended for broadband expansion aren’t likely to help rural parts of the state, the Monadnock Broadband Group wrote last week to the state’s Office of Strategic Initiatives. Grant recipients are expected to be announced any day now following a July 2 application deadline. That will be the first opportunity for local towns to even learn whether internet providers applied on their behalf, a number of local community broadband representatives said. The Office of Strategic Initiatives was not able to answer questions by press time Monday.

The grant’s timeline and payment schedule was discouraging to potential internet provider applicants, Dublin Broadband Committee and Select Board representative Carole Monroe said. New Hampshire has interpreted that the federal grant requires selected projects be complete, with users connected to internet by Dec. 15 – an impossibly fast turnaround time for any internet provider that doesn’t already have a stockpile of equipment and access to utility poles. Furthermore, the grant only pays 10 percent up front. “So that’s a big risk,” she said, for any provider unable to complete the project in time.

Furthermore, the grant disqualified projects with preexisting agreements, such as Consolidated Communications’ bonded projects in Dublin and Rindge. “We talked to the bond bank and we could have backed out,” Monroe said, forgoing this summer’s bond sale to attempt to get Dublin’s $1.3 million project funded by the CARES Act instead, but ultimately decided to avoid the risk of receiving no funds at all. The town ultimately received “a great rate” for their bond, and Consolidated Communications is continuing work throughout the summer.

“It was really disappointing for us and frustrating when CCI said they were not able to justify the constraints of the grant and the deadline,” Temple Broadband subcommittee member Christine Robidoux said during a virtual meeting of the Monadnock Broadband Group on June 7.

At the same meeting, Southwest Region Planning Commission executive director Tim Murphy said he was “concerned and disappointed” that the program itself doesn’t seem to be aligned with the needs of rural New Hampshire, and that the program as written rewards proposals that connect the most addresses at the least cost, which perpetuates the status quo of denser areas getting connected over farther-flung communities. The Monadnock Broadband Group, which is an informal group of stakeholders within the SWRPC, ultimately listed the grant’s perceived shortcomings in their July 16 letter to the state, asking that future funding opportunities be more useful to rural communities.

Francestown and Peterborough both encouraged internet companies to put in for funds for underserved parts of town, but will not know whether a company applied on their behalf until the grant recipients are announced. Peterborough released an RFP for internet providers when the CARES Act grant came out, Town Planner Danica Melone said, which included all relevant information about underserved areas of town.

If the grant proves fruitless for Hancock and Francestown, both towns have set their sights on another pool of CARES Act funds that list broadband among approved infrastructure applications. Funds usually available only to infrastructure projects like roads and bridges have been extended through a CARES Act amendment to include broadband, Hancock Telecommunications Committee Chair Tim Theberge said. Francestown is also looking into the possibility of adding the uncovered parts of town to an eventual municipal bond in adjacent Greenfield, Broadband Committee member Alfred Eisenberg said.

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