One rural N.H. town is hoping to bring in broadband without taking on debt

Monitor staff
Published: 10/24/2019 9:31:28 AM

In what is either a case of forward thinking or wishful thinking, depending on your point of view, the town of Sandwich is looking for “potential partners” to build a fiber-optic internet network in town without the community taking on any debt.

“We hope we would find something that wouldn’t require issuing municipal bonds. We have lots of other places where the money needs to go, like bridge repair,” said Richard Knox, a member of the Sandwich Broadband Advisory Committee.

Sandwich is among many New Hampshire communities looking for new ways to get high-speed internet service. Many are prodded by last year’s passage of state law allowing them to issue long-term municipal bonds to build the FCC definition of broadband service, which is 25 megabits per second (mbps) download and 3 mbps upload speed.

Chesterfield, west of Keene, is the first community to take advantage of that law, signing a deal with Consolidated Communications that will bring fiber to the home for the entire town that was celebrated Wednesday with a ribbon-cutting. The town of 3,500 approved a $1.8 million bond to pay for part of the work.

Sandwich, which has about 1,100 people, hopes to avoid such a cost. The town’s eight-person Broadband Committee, appointed by the Select Board, has issued a Request for Information, the first step in a long process toward making a deal. That has a deadline of this Friday, and if all goes well, the group will proceed with an official Request for Proposals.

“The problem is clear, and support for solving it is clear. What’s not yet clear is whether we can figure out a public-private partnership that can make it happen,” Knox said.

Sandwich, like many rural communities in New Hampshire and most of the rest of the country, has struggled to keep up with people’s increasing demands for broadband internet. Broadband is needed for many in-home businesses, and is increasingly sought by people looking to buy homes or commercial properties.

This became clear during a series of listening sessions held by the broadband committee over the summer, where people presented a litany of woes about slow internet interfering with business and family plans.

“People have wanted to relocate to Sandwich then decided no, we can’t do this,” Knox said. “One couple ran a genealogy business out of their house that involved uploading as well as downloading large files, and a friend of theirs who lived in town said you can’t do that here.”

Aside from satellite internet, the main high-speed service in town is DSL, which comes over copper telephone lines, Knox said.

“You don’t get what you’re paying for. Many people don’t. It’s very intermittent,” said Knox, who has lived full-time in town for five years. “I tested my speed for a month. The average was 1.9 mpbs, but for 10 of those 30 days it was below one, which basically doesn’t work at all.”

Sandwich does have one unusual thing going for it: No cable TV.

In much of rural New Hampshire, the fastest internet is provided through cable modems by Comcast or other cable firms, but Sandwich never signed a franchise agreement with any cable provider. This makes it more attractive to newcomers, Knox said.

“We say to any potential partners they’ll have a pretty good uptake from customers. You don’t have to compete with cable companies,” he said.

But complications are many, including access to utility poles, where any cables would have to be hung, Knox said. The town has about 3,200 such poles, half of which are owned by N.H. Electric Cooperative and half either by Eversource or Consolidated Communications.

Since news broke of Chesterfield’s deal, more than a dozen municipalities have reached out to Consolidated regarding public-private partnerships, according to an article in New Hampshire Business Review. No announcements of other agreements have been made.

Knox said Sandwich has talked with a Kansas City firm called Conexon that works with rural communities to develop high-speed broadband systems. It has worked with several electric cooperatives around the country. Much of Sandwich is served by the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative.

Sandwich is part of an 18-town group called Carroll County Broadband that is looking into ways of bringing more high-speed internet. It has received a $250,000 grant to do a feasibility study.

“That’s a longer timeline; we’d like to move faster if we can,” said Knox.

About 40 homes in Sandwich have had another, unusual broadband option for 15 years. Cyberpine Wireless, a do-it-yourself internet service provider, was created in 2004 when no alternatives were available. It transits from one hilltop antenna south of Center Sandwich that is served by a T-1 line and recently was taken over by Tamworth Wireless Cooperative, a nonprofit that operates a similar but slightly larger service in neighboring Tamworth.

Interested parties can respond to the Sandwich Select Board by this Thursday. The request for information document can be seen online at sandwichnh.org.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


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