The pandemic has unquestionably highlighted the challenges the region faces due to lack of widespread broadband service. Whether it be for businesses struggling to operate efficiently while employees work remotely, schools trying to educate students effectively or health-care professionals trying to deliver more services through telemedicine, the pandemic has added urgency to the long-recognized need for better Internet infrastructure in the region.
But the pandemic may have also underscored additional opportunities that better broadband capabilities might bring to a rural area such as southwestern New Hampshire. Among them, there’s been an uptick in people moving away from larger cities and more populated areas, perhaps to seek greater distance from COVID hotspots, but often with the recognition that employers’ increasing embrace of a remote workforce makes living farther from the office, with the accompanying lower living costs and lifestyle differences, both feasible and attractive.
It is encouraging, then, to note the rapid acceleration evident this town meeting season in efforts to bring improved Internet access to more communities in the region. It’s a development principally made possible by a 2018 state law, authored by Sen. Jay Kahn of Keene, that finally overcame long-held Internet provider resistance and enabled municipal bonding for broadband improvements in so-called unserved areas. The idea behind the legislation was to create a framework for rural towns and broadband providers to partner on broadband enhancement projects.
Chesterfield was the first area town to jump in, crafting a plan in early 2019 with the telecom broadband provider Consolidated Communications to build a town-wide fiber-optic network with a $10 monthly user fee that would pay down the bond. The promise of that initiative led several other area towns to either announce or explore plans coming into 2020. And this year, the pace has quickened considerably, and nine more area towns have broadband bonding proposals on their warrants. Jaffrey and Roxbury residents have yet to weigh in on their proposals, but voters in Fitzwilliam, Troy, Gilsum, Sullivan, Charlestown, Langdon and Marlborough have resoundingly backed broadband expansion. The proposals generally follow the Chesterfield-Consolidated model, with a monthly user fee, typically of no more than $10 a month, supporting the bond payments. And while Consolidated has been the biggest player in these area plans, other fiber-optic providers are now showing interest.
In addition to the bonding proposals, Acworth at its town meeting discussed with voters plans to fund a fiber-optic network using federal CARES Act funds granted through the state. That plan follows broadband infrastructure projects approved last year for parts of four other area towns.
The enthusiasm for these plans expressed at town meeting discussions last week was evident. In Gilsum, broadband committee and selectboard member Victoria Ayer noted that only 19 percent of the town’s residents have broadband access and called the proposal “super exciting for the town.” Similar sentiments were echoed at Troy’s town meeting, where broadband committee member Lisa Steadman cited the 27 percent of residents lacking high-speed Internet access and emphasized the role the town’s broadband expansion plan would play in addressing the challenges the town’s students have faced during the pandemic, but could also play in bringing up property values, which would raise the tax base.
As encouraging as this momentum is, challenges still remain for the region’s high-speed capabilities to become fully competitive. Even after this town meeting season’s proposals, there remain many area towns that have not yet taken advantage of the municipal bonding now possible. Some larger communities, including Keene, which providers insist have adequate service and may not be “unserved,” have nevertheless struggled with pockets of inadequate broadband coverage. And it will be important to find incentives for providers to continue to introduce improving technology as it’s adopted elsewhere so that this region can keep up.