By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Broadband in the rural parts of the state got a gigabyte boost Wednesday as a $40 million contract was approved by the Executive Council to help connect and improve connectivity for almost 25,000 homes and businesses.
About 1,524 homes in Pittsburg, 2,367 in Winchester, and 1,306 in Berlin are among the estimated 24,757 locations throughout the state which will benefit from the expenditure through the American Rescue Plan Act.
Consolidated Enterprise Services Inc. which provides Fidium Fiber (https://www.fidiumfiber.com/) was among three bidders for the contract with the state Department of Business and Economic Affairs.
The company will be investing 27 percent of its own money into the contract to expand and upgrade the speed to up to 2 gigabytes in the next 18 months in six counties. Federal funds will account for the remaining 73 percent of the total project costs.
Coos County will see 8,459 new or improved connections, Cheshire 3,078, Carroll, 6,984 Merrimack 1,324, Sullivan 2,113, and 2,501 in Grafton County.
The improved service will allow people to work from home, and students to be able to have access to remote education and rural telehealth medicine, Gov. Chris Sununu said.
The Republican governor, who has said he is considering a run for President of the United States, claims that New Hampshire got out ahead and early on expanding rural broadband and is in a comparatively better situation than other states with hook-up costs among the lowest in the region.
He said when the pandemic first hit in 2020 and students and businesses were shuttered, the state used the first tranche of federal funds through the CARES Act to help build out rural broadband.
About $50 million was awarded to the NH Electric Cooperative to bring coverage to more than 23,000 households, he noted.
This is the next round, and when combined that will mean approximately 40,000 households in the state will see improved access and speed to the internet.
There were estimates that about 70,000 homes in the state are underserved or have no broadband service.
Sununu said the complex aspects of connecting were done in 2020 and that is allowing New Hampshire to roll this out faster than other states with rural areas. “We are doing it much more cost effectively,” he said because the homework was done upfront in 2020.
“Today’s success is building on that,” said Sununu after the unanimous vote by the Executive Council.
The money needs to be spent by the end of 2026, noted Taylor Caswell, commissioner of the Department of Business and Economic Affairs but a majority of it will go out in 2024.
“This build-out will enable Granite Staters in previously unserved and underserved areas to utilize not only remote learning or remote work options but also access to telehealth services,” Caswell said.
Communities to be served with broadband under this contract include Albany, Dummer, Bartlett, Errol, Chatham, Gorham, Conway, Green’s Grant, Eaton, Jefferson, Effingham, Lancaster, Freedom, Martin’s Location, Glen, Milan, Harts Location, Millsfield, Jackson, Northumberland, Madison, Pinkham’s Grant, Moultonborough, Pittsburg, Ossipee, Randolph, Sandwich, Sargent’s Purchase, Tamworth, Second College Grant, Tuftonboro, Shelburne, Wolfeboro, Stark, Stratford, Alstead, Wentworth Location, Marlow, Whitefield, Richmond, Walpole, Bethlehem, Winchester, Franconia, Lincoln, Berlin, Lisbon, Cambridge, Littleton, Carroll, Sugar Hill, Clarksville, Hancock, Dalton, Dixville, New London, Acworth, Newbury, Sutton, Croydon, Langdon, Springfield, and Sunapee.
“It’s going to have a great impact,” said Republican Executive Councilor Joe Kenney of Wakefield, whose district includes much of the territory to see the trucks rolling.
“Obviously, rural broadband is critical,” and he said many local boards and county groups “are going to be ecstatic.”
Democrat Cinde Warmington of Concord, whose district includes areas in Cheshire County that will benefit, said she has heard from constituents who are “excited.”
Caswell noted that the average price per hook-up is $2,000 which is far lower than in other states in the surrounding area.
“Well done,” said Executive Councilor Janet Stevens of Rye, a Republican who said this is a “fabulous program.”
Sarah Davis, vice president of government affairs at Consolidated said it has about 200,000 customers in New Hampshire and also provides the same in 22 states, but a focus in the northeast is Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont where they also provide high-capacity business services to state agencies and businesses.
“We’re ecstatic. We couldn’t be happier about the decision,” she said after the Executive Council vote.
“We are so excited with the numerous towns we are working within mostly Carroll and Coos county but others as well to expand broadband to people that are unserved and really provide future proof broadband service that as initially rolled out at by 2 gigs,” she said. “Whether it’s working at home, digitally contacting their doctor for telehealth even just watching Netflix and streaming videos, they will be able to do anything they need. They will have all the bandwidth they need.”
“They will have access to job interviews and WebXs at work. They can work remotely in a call center and it allows you to live where you want to live rather than living where you work,” Davis said.
This will help with property values, she noted, and reduce the carbon footprint by not having to drive as much.
Consolidated is giving $14.9 million into the effort and the result is that the company is able to serve customers at a less cost with its Fidium service, which is its brand for its fiber service.
Customers will not pay an installation fee, Davis said.
Consolidated will expand further beyond this contract in the areas where it is expanding.
“It’s a commitment to the towns were are working with to provide better service throughout their whole town,” she said.
Similar to rural electrification, she said, “It’s the last mile. It’s the way to get services to areas that otherwise would not produce a rate of return on that investment and so it allows these areas that otherwise might not be economical to build to get the latest and greatest broadband services.”
She said that compared to Maine and Vermont, New Hampshire seems to have more people with access to broadband.
“Hopefully we will close the gap for everyone,” she said.
Those who would like to find out more about the buildout can reach to pre-order today on the website https://www.fidiumfiber.com/