Despite a renewed push from city officials to bring more broadband Internet access to Keene, high costs and legislative barriers remain roadblocks to making a widespread, fast internet connection in the city a reality.
An ongoing project spearheaded by city officials, called Gigabit Keene, has begun to address how the city might pave the way for faster Internet, in the city and region.
“There’s a dream, and then there’s getting the prerequisites out of the way,” Rebecca Landry, the city’s director of information management services, said Friday.
City officials, local Internet distributors and developers have long examined ways to get more Keene customers connected to broadband Internet, which is faster than the normal connections that most area customers buy from Internet providers.
Broadband is needed to run much of the online programs and software that businesses and entrepreneurs need to function smoothly, they said.
But the dream of city-wide broadband has roadblocks.
The first one, officials said, is money.
Limited parts of Keene are already connected to broadband through the N.H. Fast Roads initiative. Fast Road is a Keene-based nonprofit group that, using federal money, completed a fiber optic network along the western side of the state last year.
According to a 2014 report by the Southwest Regional Planning Commission, companies such as Time Warner and Fairpoint don’t have much incentive to pay to install fiber optic cables in areas like the Monadnock Region.
In June, former Fast Roads executive director Carole Monroe completed a report for Gigabit Keene, concluding that broadband capacity has become a crucial resource for both big companies and entrepreneurs looking to start new businesses in the city.
“Just as roads and highways were the necessary infrastructure of the past, in this knowledge-based business world broadband capacity and speed are the defining factors,” Monroe wrote.
Small providers, including Fast Roads, run a total of less than 50 miles of fiber optic cable through Keene, according to Monroe’s report.
The location of Time Warner and Fairpoint fiber networks in Keene is confidential, Monroe said, but both serve large businesses in the city.
“It can be cost prohibitive for service providers to expand or upgrade broadband infrastructure in rural areas,” the report said. “Given these economic challenges, it is not surprising that there are limited options for accessing broadband in the region.”
This can make it difficult for the city to enlist the help of large Internet providers in city-run initiatives to expand high-speed internet access locally, City Manager John A. MacLean said.
“We haven’t formally asked them to do anything ... but at this point I’m not aware of any particular interest on their part,” he said. “Nobody’s saying, ‘No, don’t do it,’ there’s just not a lot of enthusiasm. There’s no way to finance it.”
Because there are relatively few users in the Monadnock Region to absorb the cost of construction, and the fact that its hilly geography makes any infrastructure project difficult, expansion into remote areas is cost-prohibitive, according to the commission’s report.
Still, several different providers run about 60 miles of fiber along Keene streets to customers in the city.
Small Internet providers, such as WiValley, lease space on the Fast Roads network to deliver high-speed Internet to about 400 people on its main fiber optic line, which runs through Keene from Enfield to Rindge.
The effort continues to expand, with some lateral lines of fiber optic cable extending from a main line to include some Keene streets, Railroad Street being one, according to Corey Maxin, a network analyst at Fast Roads.
Expanding to most parts of Keene has proven difficult because of the high fees utility companies charge for space on power line poles, Maxin said.
Placing the lines underground can be even more expensive and hard to coordinate with ongoing city construction plans so cables can be laid while streets are already being torn up, he said.
A formal partnership with the city could make that easier, MacLean said, but it would still require grants and the ability to issue bonds for the project.
It would be easier to consider paying that cost, MacLean said, if the city were able to issue bonds to pay for it.
The state began allowing county and municipal governments to issue bonds for building broadband infrastructure, but limited the ability to areas not served by an existing broadband provider or areas without enough potential customers to attract private service providers.
Because most municipalities, including Keene, have at least a small pocket of broadband, they are essentially blocked from being able to bond for broadband, MacLean said.
A bill in the state legislature aimed at removing that barrier has failed several times, and the effort has languished despite continued efforts by Sen. Molly M. Kelly, D-Keene.
With Gigabit Keene, Landry said, the city is looking for unexplored options and initial steps.
Monroe’s report includes recommendations that the city begin to review its blueprint of possible locations for fiber optic cables, consolidate its planning and development policies and “build relationships” with telecommunications companies.
“(We’re) keeping our radar open and thinking outside the box about what are the kinds of things that people are doing,” she said. “I’m sure that it will continue on, but it’s taking time.”