CHESTERFIELD — If there’s one thing U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster wants 2020 presidential candidates to notice while campaigning in the Monadnock Region, it’s the strength — or lack thereof — of their Internet connection.
“I’m hoping the presidential candidates will say, ‘Can you hear me now?’ ” Kuster chuckled at the outset of a sitdown with service providers and local leaders at Chesterfield’s town offices late Wednesday morning.
The Hopkinton Democrat wanted to let the nine stakeholders around the square conference-room table know what kind of funding for high-speed Internet is coming down the pike from Congress, but she also spent much of the hour listening to the obstacles they’ve encountered trying to reach some of the roughly 20 million Americans without broadband access.
“It is funny that way about this issue, because for the longest time, I think people just felt as though private enterprise would take care of this,” Kuster said of expanding high-speed Internet in rural areas. “And it took them an entire generation to wake up and say, ‘Ugh, I’m on the end of a dirt road in a town of 3,000 people. Maybe private enterprise isn’t going to get this done.’ “
The central reason why more Granite Staters and people in the farther-flung areas of the Monadnock Region don’t have broadband barely required a reminder at the meeting: Sparsely populated communities are too costly for telecommunications companies to provide high-speed Internet to at a profit.
While the call for public-private partnerships in covering the “last mile” of Internet access has been made for more than a decade, several of those in the room described state Sen. Jay V. Kahn’s Senate Bill 170 as “a game changer.”
Rob Koester, the vice president of consumer products at Consolidated Communications, described how Kahn’s bill — which Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law in May — allows individual cities and towns to borrow money and partner with companies like his to bring fiber-optic cables to homes lacking high-speed Internet.
In Chesterfield, Koester’s team has been working with the town on the first project in the state taking advantage of the law after voters approved a $1.8 million bond at town meeting in March. Consolidated Communications covers the costs up front, and then $10 user fees for the new service cover the interest, according to Koester, who added that the rate could even go down slightly over the 20-year loan period.
In Dublin, where around 80 percent of residents remain without broadband, Consolidated Communications secured a similar bond arrangement at Monday’s board of selectmen’s meeting, according to Carole Monroe, a Dublin resident who sits on the town’s broadband committee.
Those on the industry side like Koester and Monroe, who works for ValleyNet, told Kuster how some federal funding for broadband expansion, particularly USDA grants, can be disincentivizing to their businesses because of the department’s requirement that all cables laid out by the telecommunications provider be open to use by competitors.
Kuster directed them to other options, such as the Northern Border Regional Commission, and assured the room she would tell her colleagues about the hangup over competition.
The commission includes counties near the Canadian border in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and is based off of the Appalachian Regional Commission in providing grants and other opportunities for rural communities.
Kuster touted the addition of Cheshire County to the approved list as an asset going forward for towns looking to expand broadband.
Later Wednesday afternoon, Kuster and her staff held a federal grant-writing workshop at the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship in Keene.
Cheshire County Assistant Administrator Rod Bouchard told Kuster at the Chesterfield session how smaller towns need a “road map” for the bonding process, particularly if they are short on resources to create maps of who has coverage already.
Crucially, Bouchard described how there is no recourse for towns when service providers do not provide them with coverage maps, forcing them to rely on the widely decried Federal Communications Commission maps.
Since telecom companies are already sitting on detailed maps, according to Koester, Kuster asked why not let towns have access to them within a defined time frame with legal actions available if they remain under seal.
While the congresswoman said afterward that she is optimistic broadband access is a reliably bipartisan issue, she raised concerns about the economic landscape in the United States as more dense communities move onto 5G while others struggle with little more than dial-up.
“What I worry about in the world is that people — particularly young people growing up and living in rural communities — will not have the same access to opportunity,” Kuster said, “and that we will end up with a digital divide of the haves and have nots.”