CHESTERFIELD — For the 50 or so residents who congregated in the town hall Saturday morning, the board of selectmen were bearers of good news: High-speed Internet access could soon reach all of Chesterfield.
The informational meeting gave residents their first look at a proposal that would offer reliable fiber-optic Internet service to every home in town through a partnership with provider Consolidated Communications — and all at no additional cost to taxpayers.
It’s thanks in part to Senate Bill 170, legislation signed into law in June that allows municipal governments to issue bonds for building broadband infrastructure in areas not served by a commercial provider.
The bill, sponsored by N.H. Sen. Jay V. Kahn and Rep. John Bordenet, both Keene Democrats, paves the way for public-private partnerships to expand infrastructure in rural areas such as the Monadnock Region.
Broadband is an umbrella term typically used for Internet service faster than dial-up and is often described in terms of download and upload speeds. These speeds measure the amount of data transmitted per second, typically reported in kilobits, megabits and gigabits.
Senate Bill 170 defines “unserved” as a rate of transmission that falls below the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum download speed of 25 Mbps and upload speed of 3 Mbps.
According to Saturday’s presentation, 6 percent of Chesterfield currently has download speeds of less than 3 Mbps, while 12 percent has speeds of less than 10 Mbps and 16 percent has speeds of less than 25 Mbps.
But it’s been difficult to find a solution to slow speeds and unreliable service that wouldn’t require the town to foot the entire bill, said Brad Roscoe, a former selectman who has been spearheading efforts for several years to bring broadband to Chesterfield.
“Providers are not going to invest in the rural areas. Their business models don’t support it. Houses are too far apart; it just doesn’t make any economic sense,” Roscoe said. “So you can’t rely on them to do it on their own.”
That’s where SB 170 comes in. Following the bill’s passage, the town put out a request for proposals for the needed infrastructure improvements in November, according to Roscoe, which drew responses from three service providers: Consolidated Communications, Argent Communications and WiValley.
Of the five proposals submitted by the three providers, only one would reach the entire town, and only one wouldn’t incur costs to the taxpayers, Roscoe said.
Consolidated Communications offered to guarantee a $1.8 million bond over 20 years and contribute about $2.5 million in additional funding to build a full fiber-optic network with speeds up to 1 Gbps, Roscoe said. There would be no cost to the town, as the principal and interest on the bond would be paid for through an up-to-$10 monthly infrastructure fee added to subscribers’ monthly service charges.
The project would take between 12 and 24 months to complete, with service implemented on a rolling basis. Service would be offered at prices ranging from $49.99 per month to $199.99 per month, depending on speed and length of commitment.
The town’s board of selectman voted to select the proposal earlier this month, and the next step is for the plan to go before the voters at the town’s annual business meeting on March 16, where it must be approved by a two-thirds majority.
Though there were questions Saturday — many of them centering around the timeline of the project and some of the technical logistics involved — the proposal was met with general enthusiasm. James Hancock, a former member of the town broadband committee, commended Roscoe for his work in securing a proposal that benefits Chesterfield without burdening the taxpayers.
“I am absolutely floored by this. This is the absolute best thing we could have in this town. There’s no additional cost, and Brad has done his homework — and this is exactly the right thing to do right now,” Hancock said.
Rebecca Todd, Chesterfield’s town moderator, questioned how the plan would benefit the provider.
“I’m anticipating people saying, ‘This is too good to be true.’ I’m curious if you could help us understand how this fits into Consolidated’s business plan,” Todd said. “What’s in it for you?”
In response, Robert Koester, Consolidated Communications’ vice president for consumer products, said the idea is to potentially replicate the funding model — using the infrastructure fees to offset the bond — in other rural areas with limited access to broadband. He called the plan one of the most innovative programs for rural broadband infrastructure in the country today.
Roscoe also noted that to his knowledge, Chesterfield is the first community in the state to take advantage of SB 170.
“This is a pilot for us. This is how we want to see it done,” Koester said. “From a provider perspective, everybody’s got skin in the game, and everybody wins.”
For some attendees, such as David Casceillo, it didn’t take long to jump on board.
“Now I’m like a kid on a long trip,” he said, “and I’m asking mom and dad, ‘When are we getting there?’ ”