Local towns, Shaheen gather for progress report on broadband initiatives at County Hall

Posted on September 17, 2021

   
Local towns, Shaheen gather for progress report on broadband initiative

Updated

With many Monadnock Region municipalities having already launched initiatives to bring high-speed Internet to their residents, the focus is now moving to those still without a reliable connection.

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., stopped in Keene to meet with representatives from several Cheshire County communities working to increase broadband access, as well as from organizations in the process of initiating such programs. The discussion, held at the old county courthouse, included ways that a federal infrastructure bill could be used to further these efforts.

“We have a framework for an infrastructure package that I’m pleased to have been part of helping to negotiate,” Shaheen said of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is expected to head to the Senate for a vote as soon as next week. “It has $579 billion for new spending — it’s the biggest investment in infrastructure this country’s ever made … $65 billion of those dollars are for Internet.”

In recent years, changes at the state level have opened up the ways municipalities can fund broadband expansion projects.

In 2018, Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law N.H. Senate Bill 170 — authored by state Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene — allowing municipalities to issue bonds to finance these projects. Chesterfield was the first local town to take advantage of this in 2019, and other communities are following suit.

According to Shannon Sullivan of Consolidated Communications, the company has worked with 20 communities in the region, six of which have already finished broadband projects in collaboration with Consolidated, while 14 others recently approved projects of their own.

Towns with completed projects include Chesterfield, Dublin, Harrisville, Rindge, Walpole and Westmoreland. Towns where Consolidated projects have been approved are Charlestown, Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Goshen, Greenfield, Jaffrey, Langdon, Marlborough, Marlow, Peterborough, Roxbury, Temple, Troy and Unity.

Keene, while not working on the same type of project, is also in the process of expanding access to underserved parts of the city.

During Thursday’s discussion, representatives from towns that have finished their projects, are working on projects or are still looking to start a project came together to discuss their progress. Representatives from Swanzey, Winchester and Hancock, which aim to launch broadband buildouts, spoke about the steps they’re taking.

Mollie Miller, of the Hancock Telecommunications Committee, said the town, like many other communities, doesn’t have enough people to make broadband projects worthwhile to Internet providers. Additional aid from Washington and/or Concord is needed to complete the projects, she said, adding that the town “understands that [Consolidated Communications] is not a nonprofit.”

“We don’t fit the business model,” she said. “We don’t have enough people that they can make the numbers work that they can make a profit.”

Part of the problem, she noted, is that funding sometimes can’t be secured until a provider has signed on. People from other communities also stressed the importance of grant dollars to help bring these projects to fruition.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of accessibility to a solid Internet connection was all the more apparent as people transitioned to working and studying remotely. Natalie Quevedo, of the Winchester Broadband Committee, said this spurred the town to get more active on pursuing a broadband plan of its own. Like Miller, she noted that it’s those “last-mile” homes that still need service.

Other area communities have faced their own challenges in getting broadband initiatives off the ground.

Lisa Steadman of the Troy Broadband Committee said the group was able to work with surrounding towns to learn how to put a plan together quickly and started working on it in November. Although the project is underway, she said one of the hurdles was finding the right community members to develop a plan.

But she said the project was popular with voters, who overwhelmingly approved it at this year’s town meeting, drawing a higher-than-average turnout. Those from other area towns similarly noted Thursday that their voter turnout has also spiked when broadband was on the ballot.

Carole Monroe, a member of both Dublin’s selectboard and its broadband committee, said the town has made great progress after voters approved a broadband project in 2020, saying that every property in Dublin can connect to high-speed Internet if desired. She said she believes this has led to a jump in the demand for housing in the area.

“There’s been a surge in building new homes, which was really dead prior to this …,” she said. “In addition to that, houses that have been on the market for a long time have sold, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we have access now.”

Cheshire County Administrator Chris Coates said the goal locally is to keep working at the issue until everyone in the county can connect to high-speed Internet.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “we want all 22 towns, and the City of Keene, to be able to have access.”

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com.

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