Electric Coop Members Mount Campaign To Bring Fast Internet to Underserved Areas

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Almost 900 members of the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative are spearheading a campaign to spur the utility to help build broadband internet networks.

A successful petition drive – the first in the Coop’s 81-year history – has put a pro-broadband proposal on the ballot of NHEC’s annual spring election. Normally these elections are limited to choosing members for its board of directors.

Ballots going out now ask NHEC’s 80,000 members if they will approve a proposed change in the Coop’s bylaws to put “facilitating broadband” into its charter. Balloting closes on June 16. Adoption requires a Yes vote from two-thirds of the voting members.

The member-driven campaign also supports a slate of three candidates for the Coop’s 11-member board of directors who believe the utility should play a role in supporting broadband.

“We are in the midst of the second industrial revolution powered by electricity and enabled by computer chips and electricity,” candidate Mark Portu, a technology entrepreneur from Stratham, writes in his ballot statement. “If the power we grant to the NHEC is solely for utility poles to carry electricity and not internet, how can we ever enable ALL of our members/communities to prepare for this second revolution?”

The other candidates backed by the broadband supporters are William Darcy of Benton and Leo Dwyer of Sandwich, both of whom are selectmen in their towns.

The broadband ballot initiative comes at a time of growing attention to inequitable access to internet service in New Hampshire’s smaller towns.

“The current pandemic vividly illustrates how crucial fast, reliable, affordable internet service is for everyone – workers, employers, students and their teachers, town officials and committees, doctors and their patients,” says Richard Knox of Sandwich, a spokesman for the effort. “Yet many members in the Coop’s 114-town service area lack broadband entirely, have unreliable internet or pay too much for their existing service.”

He notes that electric cooperatives were founded during the Great Depression in the 1930s to bring electricity to unserved areas. “Today broadband is just as essential,” Knox says.

Broadband internet service is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as providing a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of at least 3 Mbps. Zoom, the leading internet app for hosting multi-member meetings, says on its website that users should have at least 2 Mbps upload speed – well beyond the reach of many Coop members’ service today.

The NHEC board opposes the members’ initiative, saying in a ballot statement that the bylaws change “is unnecessary and could be harmful to NHEC’s primary mission: providing our members safe, reliable and affordable electric service.” The board asserts that the proposed change may also increase electricity rates.

The pro-broadband group calls those concerns invalid. The proposed bylaws change would not require the Coop to finance, build, own or operate any broadband network, they say, and would not require raising members’ electric rates.

“New Hampshire municipalities, businesses and citizens need and can have both lower-cost electricity and broadband internet service with the help of an energized NHEC,” says board candidate William Darcy, a consumer advocate who chairs the Benton select board.

Supporters of the ballot initiative say one way the Coop can “facilitate” broadband would be to make its utility poles available to string fiber-optic cable on predictable terms without undue red tape, and with reasonable users’ fees. Developers uniformly say that lack of such access to poles is a major obstacle to building broadband infrastructure.

In addition, Darcy says, the Coop could use the bargaining power of its 80,000 members, in combination with municipal and county jurisdictions, to negotiate with broadband developers. Its participation in grant applications, given NHEC’s credibility and technical expertise, could also help secure federal dollars already available for broadband development as well as future government subsidies. That could reduce broadband costs to Coop members.

“With federal grants and the its bargaining power,” Darcy asserts, “the NHEC can deliver better internet service without incurring significant new costs or interfering with the primary mission of reasonably priced and reliable electric service.”

Supporters also point out that the proposed change would complement NHEC’s primary mission to deliver electricity — not compete with it — by making possible an efficient, “smart” electrical grid. That, in turn, would reduce dependence on fossil fuels and their impact on climate change.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, pressure to bring broadband coverage to rural America was growing. Over the past eight years, at least 110 electric coops have begun offering broadband access to residents and businesses, and the number is growing. Of these, 79 currently offer gigabit-level service – 40 times faster than the FCC’s current definition of adequate broadband service.

“For nearly 100 years, cooperatives have been the most successful model for connecting rural Americans to the utilities they need to keep their homes, businesses, farms and schools running,” says Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which recently issued a report on how utility cooperatives are “fiberizing” rural America – building fast fiber-optic networks.

Since large internet providers such as AT&T have made it clear they’re not interested in building rural broadband networks, Mitchell says, “it’s time for policymakers to recognize that cooperatives should be the foundation of any strategy to bring high-speed internet service to rural America.”

Further information and background materials can be found at www.NHBroadband.com

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