A year ago, Keene Sen. Jay Kahn authored legislation, Senate Bill 170, that would let municipalities take out bonds to pay for improving broadband infrastructure. For years, cities and towns had been clamoring for that right, denied by a provision to state law pushed through by telecom lobbyists.
In fact, a year earlier, in his first term in the Senate, Kahn had taken aim at the loophole, just as others had before him. His effort to repeal the provision was defeated as, once again, the state’s major broadband providers argued that allowing municipal involvement in broadband would lead to disastrous results for taxpayers, and that, in any case, almost all the state had broadband service. Those arguments — specious as they were — once again succeeded. And those in areas with poor broadband service were left, again, to wonder what it would take for progress to reach them.
Kahn didn’t give up, though, nor did he settle for trying again what had failed several times. Instead, he went to executives from the telecoms and to lawmakers who had previously blocked the bonding legislation, and he asked what they would support.
The resulting SB 170, cosponsored by Keene Rep. John Bordenet, gave municipalities the ability to bond broadband projects, but only in partnership with private enterprises; and only in very underserved areas. In Keene, for example, the existing service, while lagging other cities, was deemed “adequate,” meaning the city cannot bond a broadband project.
At the time, we were pleased to see some progress, but lamented the new law took only “baby steps” toward fixing the problem, which hinders the region’s economy, education and health care, among other issues.
But we underestimated the appeal of such public-private partnerships for the providers. Consolidated Communications, for one, immediately started work on a deal with officials from Chesterfield, under which the town will bond the infrastructure work to install broadband throughout the community. Consolidated (formerly FairPoint) will then pay off the bond, recouping its money — and eventually making a profit — by charging users a $10 or so additional monthly fee on their service.
Now Westmoreland is following suit, and already, several other communities in the region are investigating, or at least discussing, the option.
Further, in September, another legislative effort, SB 103, went into effect, allowing multi-town bonding projects. Kahn was again involved, along with Sen. Jeanne Dietsch of Peterborough and area Reps. Marjorie Porter and Craig Thompson.
The fight is not over; larger communities — those which the providers insist have “adequate” service, though they really don’t — still can’t participate. And it remains to be seen whether the towns that are taking action will be signing up for “better” service that itself will be outdated by the time they get access to it.
But something is better than nothing, in terms of progress, and if the activity we’ve seen since SB 170 was passed is any indication, there’s certainly movement on the issue, where there had been none.
So congratulations to Kahn and Co.: Though much remains to be done, what we termed a “baby step” has proven to be a considerable leap in moving the needle on broadband access locally.