A report this week by Sentinel staffer Kaitlin Mulhere highlighted how inequities in Internet access can put students in rural areas academically behind their well-connected peers.
As more classes, textbooks and school curricula incorporate material from the World Wide Web, access to reliable Internet in school and at home broadens the educational gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” Mulhere reported.
And in an increasingly connected business world, Internet access isn’t just an educational issue. It’s economic, too.
Fortunately, in-roads have been made to linking some Monadnock Region communities to a fiber-optic broadband network thanks to the Fast Roads project. A federal stimulus grant funded initiative laid a backbone of fiber-optic broadband — a so-called “middle mile” — through 22 communities in the western part of the state. The network includes 220 hubs where the network can be expanded into rural communities including Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Marlow, Richmond, Rindge and Swanzey.
But despite this advancement in the region, an onerous state law restricting municipal investment in broadband infrastructure could stand in the way of expansion into many of the rural communities that need it most.
Here’s how: While Rindge was one of two towns along the Fast Roads network selected to get “last mile” linkage to 1,300 businesses and residents, expansion into other communities hinges on whether local Internet service providers decide to invest in linking them to the network.
In areas where companies determine that investing in expansion isn’t worthwhile, municipalities often find their hands tied because state law does not allow communities to take out municipal bonds for broadband access if there’s a private company operating in the community. That means if a town has even a small pocket of coverage by a telecommunication company, it can’t get funding to pay for expansion to the rest of its residents and businesses.
Relief could be on the way, though, in the form of a House bill co-sponsored by Sen. Molly Kelly, D-Keene. Slated to be taken up later this month by the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee, the bill would allow communities to bond broadband infrastructure investment, regardless of whether private companies are operating in the area.
During the last legislative session, lawmakers rejected an identical bill after private Internet providers fearing competition lobbied against it. The previous bill also received a tepid response from state utility regulators, who said the move was premature until the federally-supported broadband expansion was complete. They also pushed for more broadband mapping statewide to determine if the need for Internet access was as extensive as the bill’s supporters claimed.
Since then, the expansion project is near completion and many rural Granite State communities still lack adequate high-speed access. Changing the law would give communities one more option to achieve that crucial link. Then it would be up to voters in each town to determine if they want to invest in the state’s technology infrastructure. Lawmakers should pass the bill and put those decisions in the hands of voters.