Cyberinfrastructure Projects in New Hampshire
The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.
In the last issue of this magazine, we presented an overview of two NH projects that focus on keeping New Hampshire competitive in the economic marketplace by helping to expand broadband availability and use in the state. Both projects were funded by the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and managed by the University of New Hampshire. The first effort, Network New Hampshire Now (NNHN, http://networknhnow.org), was operational from July 2010 through December 2013, and delivered over 850 miles of fiber backbone extending through all 10 counties, connected 320 community anchor institutions across the state, replaced the existing public safety microwave networks, and significantly expanded the broadband infrastructure in NH.
The second and ongoing effort, the New Hampshire Broadband Mapping & Planning Program (NHBMPP, http://iwantbroadbandnh.org), began in January 2010 and will remain active through December 2014. This comprehensive program, coordinated by the GRANIT project within the UNH Earth Systems Research Center, inventories broadband availability, documents where and how broadband is accessed, assists specific sectors by providing training and technical assistance, and helps towns and regions plan for future broadband expansion. We accomplish these goals by working collaboratively with our program partners, including other UNH offices (Information Technology, Cooperative Extension), New Hampshire’s 9 regional planning commissions (RPCs), the NH Department of Resources and Economic Development, and the NH Office of Energy and Planning.
This article highlights several NHBMPP elements of particular significance to New Hampshire’s local and regional officials as they consider broadband expansion and use in their communities. Similar to the NHBMPP itself, we present these in two broad categories – mapping and data analysis, and planning and technical assistance.
MAPPING AND DATA ANALYSIS
Mapping Broadband Availability
One of the core activities of the NHBMPP is to create and maintain maps of broadband availability across the state. The maps depict availability by downstream speed, upstream speed, and/or technology (including DSL, cable, fixed wireless, cellular, fiber, and other technologies). They are based on data collected directly from the 60+ active service providers in the state through an active solicitation that is initiated every 6 months. The state maps are regularly submitted to NTIA for incorporation into the national broadband map (http://broadbandmap.gov), thereby contributing to national, regional, and state efforts to understand the current broadband landscape.
How do we define broadband? The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has defined broadband as the exchange of digital data between two points at a rate consisting of download speeds of 4 Mbps or greater and upload speeds of 1 Mbps or greater. The NTIA uses a more conservative approach, defining broadband as download speeds of 768 kbps or greater and upload speeds of 200 kbps or greater. The NHBMPP adopted the NTIA guidance, but introduced an enhanced, tiered definition of broadband – distinguishing between areas that we consider fully served, areas that are underserved, and areas with no service at all—the unserved (see Table 1). While these definitions limit the focus on broadband access to transmission speeds, we understand that affordability and functionality are also key factors when assessing broadband availability. Further, we recognize that broadband functions, applications and technologies are continually evolving. Only 15 years ago, a 56 kbps connection was sufficient to conduct most business on the Internet. Today, in order to use many Internet applications successfully, a minimum download speed of 6 Mbps is required – a 100-fold increase. This trend towards increasing requirements for bandwidth capacity will certainly continue into the future as new broadband-intensive applications emerge.
Using the above definition of broadband, Figure 1 presents the results of the fall 2013 data collection, and indicates those areas of the state that are considered unserved, underserved, or fully served by wireline and fixed wireless technologies based on advertised download speeds. (Cellular coverage and satellite coverage are not represented in the map or in subsequent figures.)
What are the numbers behind the mapping? Based on the same fall 2013 data collection and looking at residential wireline and fixed wireless providers only, we estimate that 3,851 households, or 0.6% of the state’s 614,754 households (2010 Census), do not have access to broadband. An additional 110,077 households (17.9% of the total state) are considered underserved.
Readers of the map and data summary should note that coverage figures are considered estimates and are based on the guidance provided by NTIA. Because some providers do not participate or submit data in response to the semiannual requests, the data may understate coverage for certain technologies. Conversely, because the NTIA guidelines require that data be aggregated and reported at the census block level, broadband availability is likely overstated in some areas of the state.
Another way to evaluate broadband access across the state is to examine the number of providers delivering service in an area as an indicator of consumer choice. Figure 2 (on the next page) illustrates the number of providers offering service across the state, again based on wireline and fixed wireless coverage only. As one might expect, northern NH generally has fewer options for acquiring broadband than the more urbanized regions of the state.
While the project maps originate from data contributed by broadband providers, the NHBMPP maintains an active program to verify the data received. We rely on a number of mechanisms, including a recently-completed town map verification effort, speed test data collected on the project web site (see below), broadband use and availability surveys also submitted to the project web site and/or collected at project meetings, direct email feedback, drive tests to collect cellular data signals, and other available independent databases.
Additional results of our mapping activities are available through interactive mapping tools and other products on the project website at http://iwantbroadbandnh.org.
Crowdsourcing Using Broadband Speed Tests
Another way to evaluate broadband availability in New Hampshire is to review the data collected by the speed test posted on the project website. This easily accessible tool immediately reports back to the user their downstream and upstream data transmission speeds, and provides additional data to the NHBMPP to verify our mapping. As of March 1, 2014, the site had collected 8,419 speed test records from users across the state. The records indicate that 53% of users experienced download speeds of 4 Mbps or less (the FCC minimum speed for broadband).
Mapping Availability at Schools, Libraries, and other Local Institutions
Broadband connectivity information for New Hampshire’s 4,000+ community anchor institutions (CAIs), including schools, libraries, municipalities, hospitals, and public safety entities, is collected on the same biannual schedule as the broadband coverage data. At the project outset, the 9 RPCs compiled listings of each CAI in their jurisdiction, mapped their location, and conducted phone and email surveys with each institution. Since that time, the broadband connectivity information collected has been updated and maintained every 6 months through a web based reporting tool, as well as direct contact by the RPCs to the CAIs. As recently reported by NTIA, these data have been used by policymakers, researchers and other stakeholders, as well as the Network NH Now broadband expansion project, in planning for broadband expansion in New Hampshire and nationally.
Inventorying Cable Franchise Agreements
Under NH RSA Chapter 53-C, each community in New Hampshire is required to enter into an agreement for access to cable and to establish terms for that access. These terms are recorded in the Cable Franchise Agreement (CFA). Access to cable is technically access to video distribution, but the reality of today’s technology is that cable infrastructure also provides Internet access. Therefore, the CFA has implications for, but does not directly represent, Internet access. Guidance for towns in the process of initiating or updating CFAs is sometimes provided through legal consultation or from the New Hampshire Coalition for Community Media. However, many communities have few resources to draw upon when reviewing an agreement.
In 2012, the NHBMPP and its RPC partners completed an inventory of municipal CFAs across the state. The effort catalogued all then-current municipal CFAs in the state and identified common elements in those agreements (including start/end dates, minimum coverage requirements, annual franchise fees paid, etc.). The inventory, along with a guide to understanding the components of cable franchise agreements, is available on the project website at http://iwantbroadbandnh.org/resources. These documents should serve as helpful guides to communities who are in the process of initiating, reviewing, or updating local franchise agreements.
PLANNING AND TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE
Planning at the Regional Broadband Level
The broadband planning component of NHBMPP is designed to use and complement other program activities, including mapping and technical assistance/training. The objective of this component is to take the role of broadband to a foundational level in order to incorporate it into the full spectrum of community form and function. For the purpose of local and regional planning, broadband service is viewed as a basic tool necessary for maintaining vibrant communities because access to adequate and affordable broadband is vital to our education, health, economic, safety, government, and residential sectors.
Since 2012, the New Hampshire RPCs have worked to develop draft regional broadband plans which are currently going through a refinement process prior to adoption. In developing these plans, the RPCs have worked closely with regional broadband stakeholder groups (BSGs) comprised of members representing a wide range of community perspectives (see Figure 3). Once complete, these documents will represent the first-ever formal regional-scale broadband plans in New Hampshire. A consistent framework has been used for the regional plans that are subdivided into sections including an executive summary, understanding broadband, regional overview, challenges and opportunities, findings and recommendations, and implementation. The plans include a vision statement, identification of needs and barriers, sector-by-sector analyses, goals, objectives, and strategies – all designed to move towards enhanced broadband service in each community in New Hampshire.
The regional broadband plans are intended to inform a state-level overview as well as municipal broadband initiatives. The NH Office of Energy and Planning will merge the regional plans into a composite statewide broadband planning document, summarizing common issues, needs and strategies while also identifying characteristics which may vary in different parts of the state. At the same time, regional broadband plans will be used to assist individual communities in ways such as providing information and analysis to be used in broadband sections of local master plans, as a source of data and other material for preparing competitive grant applications, and other steps in the process of moving towards wider broadband implementation.
In summary, the planning component of NHBMPP represents a critical step in recognizing that broadband infrastructure, service and adoption are necessary to community well-being, economic competitiveness, and overall quality of life in New Hampshire today.
Assisting Broadband “Ready” Communities
Through our RPC partners, the NHBMPP Capacity Building/Resource team invited communities in New Hampshire to submit an application for participation in the “Ready” Communities Program. The purpose of the program is to work directly with members of the selected communities on issues ranging from understanding the importance of broadband in a community and its relationship to economic development, to building community support for enhanced broadband access, and to identifying and assessing funding models.
Twenty-two communities submitted applications and completed online broadband assessment surveys. From these submissions, the team selected three communities to participate in the Program. They were selected based on the results of the Broadband Readiness Assessment Tool, existing broadband access in the area, input from the RPCs, and the team’s assessment of its ability to provide necessary resources and support. The selected communities are:
- Greenfield, and
All nominated communities and communities throughout NH will be invited to a workshop in November 2014 to learn about broadband community resources available through the NHBMPP and through other sources.
Developing Citizen Planner Modules
The Citizen Planner (http://nhcitizenplanner.org) is a web resource dedicated to helping municipal volunteers work on planning issues within their community. The goal of the tool is to provide educational resources on a range of planning-related topics. To that end, a section of the Citizen Planner will be dedicated to broadband planning in NH communities. While still under development, content areas for modules are expected to include:
- Overview of why broadband is important in NH communities,
- Broadband planning and regulations, and
- Methods to assist communities to market and promote themselves using tools that broadband provides.
The modules are scheduled to be available by mid-summer 2014.
How You Can Get Involved
Through its various program components, the NHBMPP has identified a number of ways that communities and residents in the state can assist in expanding broadband across New Hampshire. Some of these opportunities include:
- Volunteering in map verification activities, including reviewing town maps, taking the on-line speed test, etc.;
- Developing and including broadband/telecommunications chapters in master plans;
- Participating in Broadband Stakeholder Groups, or their successor regional discussion groups;
- Staying informed about funding opportunities, and seeking public/private partnerships to expand broadband; and
- Following legislative issues surrounding broadband in New Hampshire and nationally.
The current legislative cycle is quite active in the areas of telecommunications, utilities and broadband. Two important pieces of legislation that could affect the expansion of broadband in New Hampshire are detailed here.
HB286 – An act relative to broadband infrastructure has passed the House and is making its way to the Senate. It would reduce the restrictions for municipal bonding for broadband infrastructure, referencing adequate broadband while removing the focus from the unserved markets, to maximize the broadband investment and encourage large capacity fiber to the premises within communities that have a collective desire and resources to subsidize the investment.
SB344 – An act relative to cable franchise agreements will be heard this spring. The legislation attempts to address RSA 53-C:3-b to encourage competition and incentives for investment by removing a ”more favorable or less burdensome” clause which requires any new entrant to build an identical network to the cable plant in a given franchised town. The supporters of the legislation are telephone companies who already have wires on the poles and those upgrading to fiber to the premises who wish to maximize their investments.