By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — A bill intended to enhance the state’s broadband infrastructure was signed into law Wednesday.
The bill passed the Senate on 24-0 vote, and the House 248-64.
House Bill 1111 would expand broadband access throughout the state, particularly in rural areas.
The coronavirus pandemic closed schools and most businesses under Gov. Chris Sununu’s stay-at-home order and encouraged working from home.
New Hampshire schools turned to remote learning and coupled with the increased home use of the internet for work and the expansion of telemedicine, it became apparent areas in the state did not have connectivity or the capability needed to be upgraded to handle the traffic.
Earlier Sununu designated $50 million of the state’s $1.25 billion federal CARES Act money to cover COVID-19 costs to broadband expansion.
The bill passed by lawmakers, that Sununu signed Wednesday, not only calls for expanding broadband services to the under-served areas of the state, it also allows communities to establish communications districts, provides bonds to increase access, and requires mapping the existing broadband network to determine where upgrades are needed.
“Access to consistent broadband and high-speed internet was a problem long before this crisis and the remote learning, work, and health care environment has only exacerbated those inequities,” said Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee chair, state Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene. “As we prepare for the possibility of a second wave, we must take steps that efficiently use public funds to leverage private investment to deliver high-speed internet service.”
He said his Democratic colleagues have pushed to expand broadband to every door in New Hampshire, or what is called the last mile.
“Today’s signing of HB 1111 into law was a crucial step in ensuring digital equity,” he said.
Under the bill, rural communities could join together to establish communications districts, making them more attractive to broadband providers.
Sen. Jeanne Dietsch, D-Peterborough, said broadband services in rural areas make living and working in New Hampshire more affordable and increases viable housing stock.
“Expanded broadband is essential in preserving New Hampshire’s rural communities and pushing our economy forward,” she said. “I am proud that the Legislature is making it easier to bring high-speed internet service to every home in New Hampshire.”
The $50 million in funds for broadband expansion will be distributed through the state Office of Strategic Initiatives, which will work with the Department of Education and the Public Utilities Commission to develop the program criteria. According to information on the Governor’s Office for Relief and Recovery website, projects already under construction are not eligible for the program, but projects in the planning stages that have been permitted, but construction has not begun, may be eligible for the federal funding.
Projects related to existing rural broadband expansion commitments or other existing contractual obligations will be excluded as well.
The money from the CARES Act must be allocated before the end of the year or returned to the federal government.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.