State poised for windfall of federal money for broadband

By: - August 17, 2021 1:45 am
A young boy gives the thumbs up to a teacher on his computer screen during online schooling

Parents have described how, without a stable connection, it’s been difficult even for the brightest students to keep up with school. (Getty Images)

(This story was corrected at 10 a.m. on Aug. 17. Henry Underwood is the name of the GIS specialist and senior planner at the Monadnock Broadband Group.)

The infrastructure bill that passed the U.S. Senate earlier this month contains $65 billion for broadband – a sum lawmakers say is enough to provide universal access to the service that has become essential for telehealth, education, and business. That amount is earmarked to both build the physical infrastructure in areas where it’s lacking and to make sure that internet services are affordable for all.

In New Hampshire, where state funding for broadband hasn’t been on the table, there are high hopes that federal money will help residents who have been struggling to get connected – a burden that’s become especially acute during the pandemic. And the state has passed a few laws this past session to prepare for the anticipated flurry of federal funding.

Much of the state has been left out for a long time, according to Carole Monroe, who serves on the Dublin Broadband Committee. While that’s been changing because of initiatives in the past few years to bring more service to parts of the state, such as southwestern New Hampshire, Monroe said the work shouldn’t end until there’s universal coverage. 

Parents have described how, without a stable connection, it’s been difficult even for the brightest students to keep up with school. Clean energy experts have highlighted how access to broadband limits which voices can participate in planning new infrastructure investments.

“We can’t do anything if we can’t communicate effectively with each other,” said Jeanette Pablo, at a recent Irving Institute symposium on clean energy.

But experts working on the ground in New Hampshire say other considerations beyond funding need to be taken into account to ensure that these efforts have the intended impact when it comes to equal access to broadband.  

Margaret Burns, the executive director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association, said that for funding to make a difference in small cities and towns, technical assistance and resources are also needed.

Towns aren’t just looking for support to implement shovel-ready projects, but also the technical support and resources so a project can reach that stage, she said during a roundtable hosted by Sen. Maggie Hassan this month.

Nik Coates, the town administrator of Bristol, agreed that getting a broadband project “shovel ready” involves an incredible amount of technical knowledge, and many small towns don’t have the capacity for that kind of planning.

“Capacity is absolutely the issue,” he said. “Communities want (broadband), they just don’t know how to get it yet.”

In Bristol, Coates has led the charge on securing a combination of public and private funding to build out broadband – but the town retains ownership and control over the infrastructure. Now, he said he’s going to work with each community in the county to build capacity.

“We’re going to show them how to do it for themselves, and we’re going to bring the dollars to the table to help them do it for themselves as well,” he said.

Right now, they’re looking to do that through the American Rescue Plan Act, which can go toward infrastructure costs, including broadband. The infrastructure bill would be another way of funding these regional efforts.  

Many of the initiatives to increase access to broadband have been carried out by volunteers, who don’t necessarily have any expertise in what goes into building infrastructure.

“It’s also taken a huge volunteer effort for any size town in our region to do,” said Henry Underwood, a GIS specialist and senior planner at the Monadnock Broadband Group, part of the Southwest Regional Planning Commission. “I think in some ways that’s eroded some other local needs, you know, participating in other volunteer obligations that run New Hampshire, but also potentially eroding some of the financial support that they’d rather use for something else: the firetruck, EMS, water, and sewer,” he said.

While many in the state have touted public-private partnerships as a way of making progress toward universal access, Underwood said it doesn’t always work out, such as when providers aren’t interested in participating. That’s what happened with the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

“Essentially our challenge is getting to a high level of service for everyone in a community,” Underwood said. That problem is acute in Cheshire County, which would rank almost dead last if compared to the coverage in any state, according to Underwood.

“New Hampshire: doing OK overall, at 14th or so. But our region in particular: 52, if you count D.C.,” he said.

The $65 billion in the infrastructure bill is meant to ensure that every American can access reliable high-speed internet, and it includes programs to make internet affordable. The funding will be divided among several programs. Approximately $42.5 billion is headed to state broadband deployment grants, and of that, New Hampshire will receive at least $100 million to help the state build infrastructure where it’s needed.

About $14 billion will go toward a permanent Affordable Connectivity Program, providing a $30-per-month credit toward internet bills for low-income households. Residents who qualify for WIC or free school lunch and households that earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level would be eligible for the benefit.

The infrastructure bill also includes language to allow for public-private partnerships through a kind of bonding, based on a model New Hampshire has been using since 2018. Through this model, towns essentially pitch in toward the cost of a project to attract private providers. Those who later subscribe for the service then pay a monthly fee that goes toward paying off the bond.

One problem with that model is that while towns help defray the cost of the initial investment, they don’t have control over the services that are offered. The provider can raise its prices as it sees fit – especially of concern to people who live in an area where the provider essentially has a monopoly on the local market – and there’s often no requirement about upgrading the service in the future.

For instance, Underwood said that most providers in the area currently have copper-based infrastructure that could range from 10 to 50 years old.

“It’s not going to get us where we want to be as far as quality,” Underwood said.

Both Underwood and Burns said equity will be an important determiner of success.

“We don’t want to see things like a higher price tag on service or a patchwork of improvement happening,” Underwood said.

For Coates, it’s clear that achieving this goal would be better served by getting money to municipalities, not just providers.

“I’ve heard some stories about funding being provided to the providers directly, and the interests of the municipality weren’t best served,” he said.

“The more funding can be put in the hands of public entities like municipalities and counties in the state, the better.”

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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