By Richard Knox
Two summers ago every mailbox in the Lakes Region town of Sandwich got a postcard bearing the aspirational headline “Broadband for Sandwich.” It invited townsfolk to “listening sessions” to share their experience with existing internet service. More than a hundred showed up to tell tales of woe.
“Broadband for Sandwich” is about to become reality. Sandwich and the southwestern New Hampshire town of Acworth have signed agreements with NH Broadband to cooperate in building a high-speed fiber-optic broadband network in both towns. The company is a new, nonprofit subsidiary of the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative (NHEC).
The news is the payoff for two roller-coaster years of dogged effort by Sandwich residents to find an alternative to their sluggish, unreliable, deteriorating internet service. The campaign was made all the more urgent by a global pandemic that upended ordinary methods of communication.
The announcement has implications beyond Sandwich and Acworth. The Co-op’s goal is “to bring high-speed internet to all (the Co-op’s) 70,000 member homes and businesses” by December 2024, according to a letter NHEC sent to Governor Sununu last month. Because households contain multiple individuals, on average, that could potentially make fiber-optic broadband available to an estimated 170,000 people in 118 towns.
NH Broadband plans to light up the Sandwich and Acworth networks by early 2022. Last December the Co-op turned on its first networks in Lempster (adjacent to Acworth), and Colebrook, Stewartstown and Clarksville in Coos County, with the aid of $6.7 million in federal CARES Act funding.
NH Broadband officials say they will offer 100 megabit-per-second (Mbps) service to residential customers for $49.95 a month and gigabit-per-second connections for $89.95.
The new service will be available to 100 percent of electric customers in the towns, whether or not they get power from NHEC. The company says it will charge a $150 hookup fee but won’t require subscribers to sign a lock-in agreement. Other details are available at NHBroadband.com.
The Co-op isn’t asking towns to float a bond issue or otherwise commit town tax money to the projects. It does ask the towns to consider sharing any funds they raise from government programs or other funding sources earmarked for broadband. Under the recently passed federal American Rescue Plan Act, all municipalities and counties will receive funds that can be used for broadband networks.
Beyond that, New Hampshire state officials will distribute another $121 million for rural broadband development under the Rescue Plan law. NHEC hopes to get $50 million of that. Co-op officials told Sununu that funding “could reduce New Hampshire’s total underserved population by more than half.” The NHEC board has authorized $90 million of its own capital and borrowing ability to achieve the goal.
NH Broadband’s plan “is so significant in terms of our quality of life, from learning to personal connections to business opportunity,” Joanne D. Haight, chair of the Sandwich Select Board, said in an interview.
The lack of good internet has plagued Sandwich residents for years, Haight said. “When my daughters were in school, there would be projects that required internet access, and the teachers would say, ‘But if you’re in Sandwich, you don’t have to do that assignment.’ To be treated as second-class citizens…it was pretty critical.
Haight, a business development specialist, said the economic implications are major. “The impact of fast internet is relevant to buying property,” she noted. “People are escaping urban areas to enjoy the quality of life in our beautiful town. We’ve seen about 200 new voters in the past year, which is significant in a population of around 1,400. People assume the speeds that exist in Boston exist in rural New Hampshire. And they don’t.”
The Co-op’s plan is an echo of the founding idea behind the formation of electric cooperatives eight decades ago when investor-owned utilities were uninterested in wiring rural communities.
“Just as electric co-ops were funded by the federal government in the 1930s, broadband internet requires government support in 2021,” said Julie Dolan, chair of the Sandwich Broadband Advisory Committee. “Without government subsidy this isn’t going to happen.”
Jeffrey Morrill, chair of NHEC’s board of directors, credited consumer activists for pushing the company into the broadband business. Last year the board opposed a pro-broadband member petition but reversed course after the measure won nearly two-thirds of the vote in NHEC’s annual board election.
“We have listened to our members’ needs and broadband advocates,” Morrill said in an interview, “and we are actively responding. We expanded our charter, launched a broadband subsidiary and are working to bring functional broadband service to all our members.”
“Functional” broadband is the term some are using to describe internet speeds well above the Federal Communications Commission’s official definition of broadband – download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps. Those speeds aren’t enough for increasing use of interactive, bandwidth-intensive apps such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, or for sharing large files. Future apps are bound to demand even higher speeds.
That’s why broadband advocates talk about building networks that are “future-proof,” and why official reckonings of “under-served” communities fail to take into account what Morrill calls the “functionally unserved.”
Jeanne Ryer, a Sandwich resident who runs a statewide health reform initiative, said the need for high-speed connection will persist after the pandemic ends. “I need access to libraries, journal articles, conferences, meetings,” she said. “Reliable speeds of 100 to 1,000 megabits will give us a lot of room for innovation as we move forward.”
Dolan of the Sandwich broadband committee said she hopes her town’s success will inspire other towns to apply for broadband support from counties and the state. The Sununu administration is creating a process to allocate new federal funds through the Department of Business and Economic Development.
“This has been a huge mountain to climb, but it looks like we got it done,” Dolan said, “and I’m proud of everybody who worked on that. To see people step up and work together for a common goal is a testament to how we can solve a problem if we put our minds to it.”
Richard Knox of Sandwich is chairman of New Hampshire Broadband Advocates.