Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill this week that supporters say will improve high-speed Internet access in rural areas like the Monadnock Region.
Senate Bill 170 allows municipal governments to issue bonds for building broadband infrastructure in areas not served by a commercial provider.
State Sen. Jay V. Kahn, D-Keene, introduced the bill in January 2017. It passed in the Senate this past January and in the House in April.
Kahn, who sponsored the bill with Rep. John Bordenet, D-Keene, described the legislation as an attempt to provide rural communities with an opportunity to “level the playing field” by giving them an important economic development tool.
For a rural area like the Monadnock Region, Kahn said, broadband infrastructure is as important as the physical highways that link larger cities.
“Investment in the highway system through Southwest New Hampshire is not in our immediate future, but what sells our region is its rural lifestyle,” Kahn said. “In order to be competitive, we need the economic development tools that will enable private contractors and businesses to be competitive.”
Broadband is an umbrella term typically used to describe Internet service faster than dial-up.
It is defined by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration as “advanced communications systems capable of providing high-speed transmission of services such as data, voice, video, complex graphics, and other data-rich information over the Internet and other networks.”
Broadband is frequently described in terms of download and upload speeds because these are relatively easy-to-understand metrics. 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 minimum download speed of 25 Mbps and upload speed of 3 Mbps. These figures came out of the FCC’s 2015 broadband progress report, which raised the minimum download and upload speeds from 4 Mbps and 1 Mbps, respectively.
The bill also defines “location” as an address rather than using a previous statutory definition of the word as a census tract.
Since 2006, the state has allowed county and municipal governments to issue bonds for building broadband infrastructure in “areas not served by an existing broadband carrier or provider.”
However, since most towns have at least some broadband access, the earlier statutory definition of an area effectively blocked municipalities from issuing bonds for broadband infrastructure that would meet the needs of unserved residents on an individual, block-by-block basis. This left communities to depend on commercial providers to help finance such projects.
According to Kahn, broadband infrastructure is a particularly salient issue for his constituents in District 10, which covers the city of Keene, as well as the more rural towns of Alstead, Chesterfield, Gilsum, Harrisville, Hinsdale, Marlborough, Nelson, Roxbury, Sullivan, Surry, Swanzey, Walpole, Westmoreland and Winchester.
A patchwork of access
Speaking shortly after SB 170 passed the House in April, Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Phil Suter described broadband access as a 21st century quality-of-life issue that affects not only businesses but everyone who lives and works in the region.
Broadband access in the Monadnock Region is a patchwork, Suter said, varying tremendously from town to town and, in some cases, by block.
“We hear from lots of individuals and organizations that our broadband infrastructure is not what they want or need in order for them to be as productive as they’d like to be,” he added.
Similar legislation had been on the table in Concord for nearly a decade but never made it to the governor’s desk. House Bill 191, for example, died in the House last year.
According to Kahn, opposition to that bill grew out of a concern among some legislators that it would allow municipalities to compete directly with businesses. Kahn said that criticism didn’t apply to SB 170, arguing that the present bill allows for a wide range of public-private partnerships for municipalities looking to expand broadband services.
“What we’re seeing now is there are many more options out there,” Kahn said. “We’re also seeing examples in other states where public financing has led to successful investments by the private sector.”
In Suter’s estimation, SB 170 did a better job of defining terminology and promoting public-private partnerships between the telecommunications companies and municipalities.
“The business model for the telecommunications companies is based on density,” Suter said. “They’ve done a pretty good job of building infrastructure and providing service in areas where the density is profitable for them. But it’s when you get into the more rural areas that the profitability model falls apart. The density is lower.”
According to Keene Assistant City Manager and IT Director Rebecca Landry, city officials conducted a study of broadband availability and quality last year and are fine-tuning a report they hope to bring before the City Council later this year.
While residents in most Keene neighborhoods have access to broadband, Landry said, more than half of respondents indicated they were unhappy with the quality of service.
“In Keene our problem is not necessarily a lack of broadband but price point,” Landry said. “But in a few neighborhoods, like Daniels Hill Road, Langley Road and Hurricane Road, there is bare-minimum DSL (Digital Subscriber Line). These areas just don’t have the capacity for modern use of the Internet.”
According to Kahn, SB 170 not only helps fill these gaps in broadband connectivity but provides a tool for broader economic development efforts in the region.
“These things go hand in glove,” Kahn said.