Broadband finally for Sandwich: the NH Electric cooperative commits to fast Internet by early 2022
By Richard Knox
Two summers ago every letterbox in the town of Sandwich in the Lake District received a postcard with the ambitious title “Broadband for Sandwich”. He invited residents to “listening sessions” to share their experience with the existing Internet service. More than a hundred showed up to tell stories of misfortune.
“Broadband for Sandwich” is about to become reality. Sandwich and the town of Acworth in southwest New Hampshire have signed agreements with NH Broadband to cooperate in building a high-speed fiber-optic broadband network in the two cities. The company is a new, not-for-profit subsidiary of the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative (NHEC).
The news is the reward for two years of roller coaster efforts by the residents of Sandwich to find an alternative to their slow, unreliable and deteriorating internet service. The campaign has been made all the more urgent by a global pandemic that has disrupted ordinary methods of communication.
The announcement has implications beyond Sandwich and Acworth. The cooperative’s goal is “to bring high-speed Internet to all 70,000 homes and businesses (of the cooperative)” by December 2024, according to an NHEC letter sent to Governor Sununu last month. Because households contain multiple people on average, this could potentially make fiber-optic broadband accessible to around 170,000 people in 118 cities.
NH Broadband plans to light the Sandwich and Acworth networks by early 2022. Last December, the cooperative activated its first networks in Lempster (adjacent to Acworth) and Colebrook, Stewartstown and Clarksville in Coos County, with assistance of $ 6.7 million. in federal funding from the CARES Act.
NH Broadband officials have announced that they will offer 100 megabits per second (Mbps) service to residential customers for $ 49.95 per month and gigabit per second connections for $ 89.95.
The new service will be available to 100% of city electricity customers, whether or not they are supplied by NHEC. The company says it will charge a connection fee of $ 150, but will not require subscribers to sign a foreclosure agreement. Further details are available at NHBroadband.com.
The cooperative does not ask cities to initiate a bond issue or otherwise commit municipal tax money to the projects. He asks cities to consider sharing the funds they raise from government programs or other sources of funding earmarked for broadband. Under the recently passed US federal bailout law, all municipalities and counties will receive funds that can be used for broadband networks.
Beyond that, New Hampshire state officials will distribute an additional $ 121 million for rural broadband development under the bailout act. NHEC hopes to get $ 50 million from it. Co-op officials told Sununu that the funding “could cut New Hampshire’s total underserved population by more than half.” NHEC’s board of directors authorized $ 90 million of its own capital and borrowing capacity to meet the goal.
NH Broadband’s plan “is so important in terms of quality of life, from learning to personal relationships to business opportunities,” said Joanne D. Haight, Chair of the Board of Sandwich Select, in a statement. interview.
The lack of quality internet has plagued Sandwich residents for years, Haight said. “When my daughters were in school, there were projects that required internet access, and the teachers would say, ‘But if you’re in Sandwich, you don’t have to do this homework.’ Being treated like second-class citizens… that was pretty critical.
Haight, a business development specialist, said the economic implications are major. “The impact of the fast internet is relevant to the purchase of a property,” she noted. “People are fleeing urban areas to enjoy the quality of life in our beautiful city. We have seen about 200 new voters in the past year, which is significant for a population of about 1,400 people. People assume that the speeds that exist in Boston exist in rural New Hampshire. And they don’t.
The cooperative’s plan echoes the founding idea of forming electricity cooperatives eight decades ago, when investor-owned utilities were not interested in wiring rural communities.
“Just as power 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 a government subsidy, this will not happen.”
Jeffrey Morrill, chairman of the board of NHEC, credited consumer activists with pushing the company into the broadband business. Last year, the board opposed a petition in favor of a pro-broadband member, but turned the tide after the measure won nearly two-thirds of the vote in the election. of the NHEC Board of Directors.
“We have listened to the needs of our members and broadband advocates,” Morrill said in an interview, “and we are actively responding to them. We have broadened our charter, launched a broadband subsidiary and are striving to provide functional broadband service to all of our members.
“Functional” broadband is the term some use to describe Internet speeds well above the official Federal Communications Commission definition of broadband – download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and download speeds of at least 25 Mbps. less 3 Mbps. These speeds are not enough to increase the use of bandwidth-intensive interactive applications like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, or to share large files. Future applications are sure to demand even higher speeds.
This is why broadband advocates talk about building “future-proof” networks and why official calculations of “underserved” communities ignore what Morrill calls “functionally unserved”.
Jeanne Ryer, a Sandwich resident who is leading a statewide health reform initiative, said the need for broadband connection will persist after the pandemic ends. “I need access to libraries, journal articles, conferences, meetings,” she said. “Reliable speeds of 100 to 1000 megabits will leave 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 prompt other towns to seek broadband support from counties and state. The Sununu administration is creating a process to allocate new federal funds through the Department of Business and Economic Development.
“It’s been a huge mountain to climb, but it looks like we made it,” Dolan said, “and I’m proud of everyone who’s worked on it. To see people come together and work together for a common goal. is a testament to how we can solve a problem if we think about it. ”
Richard Knox of Sandwich is president of New Hampshire Broadband Advocates.