Grassroots Campaign Launched in Concern of Being Left Out:Started with a Cup of Coffee and Has Evolved into a 19-Town Coalition Seeking Internet Access and Equity
Early in the winter of 2019 fellow Albany resident SteveKnox and I started talking about how important the availability of high speed fiber optic affordable internet service is to the continued health of our community, and what could we do to ensure our region did not get left out as internet service providers (ISP) build out ever-faster networks in more urban and populated areas.
I serve as chairman of the Albany Board of Selectmen, Steve represents Albany (pop.735) as a commissioner for the North Country Council, and northern New Hampshire’s regional planning commission. Our friendly chat over a cup of coffee quickly morphed into a nineteen-town group, as we reached out to others who recognized the need for all of Carroll County’s residents, second home owners, hospitals, libraries, businesses, non-profits, and educational facilities, to be able to get on and stay in the fast lane on the internet highway, regardless of how rural their actual physical address was. High speed internet access is the 21st century infrastructure of the future, and without it our rural region of New Hampshire would miss out on all the benefits that it has to offer.
The importance of this vital service was never more apparent than in early spring this year, when the education of the State’s school children was abruptly moved online due to
the COVID-19 pandemic. In Conway, the largest town in northern Carroll County and its economic hub, school officials handed out 1500 Chromebooks across the district for
distance learning. Every student received one, but it quickly became clear not all students (nor some of the teachers) had the necessary high-speed internet connection at home they needed to get the full educational benefit. This was the same issue in the other school districts in Carroll County as well.
Day after day, the parking lot of the (closed) Conway Public Library was full, the street behind it crowed with a line of parked cars, as parents sat and waited as their children accessed the library’s free Wi-Fi in order to do their school work.
Back in 2019, we quickly discovered what a large project we had taken on. In February and March we held three well attended meetings/workshops at the Albany Town Hall with a
panel of folks from local industry, the State of New Hampshire, University of New Hampshire, and Carole Monroe the CEO of ValleyNet who managed the East Central Vermont
Communications District project (ECFiber) which is a 31 town district created in 2008 by ValleyNet. ValleyNet is a local Internet Service Supplier in the Upper Valley. Carole became our dedicated consultant and we are very grateful for her continued guidance.
Others among the upwards of fifty people at each of those meetings included Carroll County Commissioners, Carroll County Delegation members, representatives from US Senator Shaheen’s office, a representative from US Congressman Pappas’ office, local neighboring town officials, local business principals, regional economic development organizations, Regional Planning Commissions, local county school systems, local non-government organizations and many interested
What we immediately discovered was how overwhelming this project is and that the project would take more than just the two of us to accomplish its goals, and that we would also have to lengthen our timeline. We came away with more questions: Is it feasible?; what are some of the challenges?; what are the legislative hurdles?; and how would we make it work and the multi-million dollar question………..funding and where would it come from?
Fortunately, there is a local model, ECFiber, in east central Vermont. This district started as a twenty-four town communications district has grown into a thirty-one town communications district created back in 2008 by ValleyNet (Carole Monroe), who has partnered with ECFiber to continue to bring affordable, high speed internet service to those towns. While their project is still very much a work in progress, at this time they appear to be a template for what we hope to
Word started to get out about our broadband initiative, generating substantial interest from other municipalities in the county and internet providers. We initially met with two representatives from Consolidated Communications in a meeting arranged for us with the help of Margaret Byrnes, the Executive Director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association at NHMA office in Concord. It was a very informative meeting technically as well as helping to identify possible interim options. We have since met with several interested internet providers (ISPs) and continue to do so. To date have had three of them appear before our committee with presentations.
Carroll County Broadband Committee meeting in October 2019 at Tamworth Town House
Carroll County Broadband Committee initiative (CC Broadband) was created on June 24, 2019 with the founding member Towns of Albany, Eaton, Tamworth, Chatham, Sandwich,
Effingham, Wakefield and Hart’s Location. At this meeting, we took the first steps to formalize the governance structure of the committee as an organization by voting for the official name and electing two co-chairs in Steve Knox and myself. We could not have come this far without the overwhelming interest and support generated
from our initial meetings/workshops and the encouragement from the County Commissioners.
Glenn Coppelman’s (North Country Council’s Senior Economic Development Planner and our committee representative from NCC) creativity provided us with the logo that we use today which gave us a more formalized and credible identity in Carroll County and the State of New Hampshire.
We realized, if our effort were to be successful, we needed Select Board level representation on CC Broadband so we went around and visited all the county’s top municipal officials. Currently we have all 19 Towns in Carroll County represented on the committee and many with alternates. These representatives will be our direct liaisons back to our member Towns for the distribution and retrieval of needed information. Current represented members of the Carroll County Broadband Committee are the Towns of Albany, Eaton, Tamworth, Chatham, Sandwich, Harts Location, Effingham, Wakefield, Moultonboro, Wolfeboro, Conway, Hales Location, Madison, Tuftonboro, Brookfield, Ossipee, Freedom, Jackson, Bartlett, Mount Washington Valley Economic Council (MWVEC),Wentworth Economic Development Corporation Inc.(WEDCO), North Country Council (NCC), Lakes Region Planning Commission (LRPC), Carroll County Commissioners, Carroll County Delegation, SAU 9, US Senator Shaheen’s office, and State Senator Jeb Bradley. There is much work to be done, and we feel strongly that together, in numbers, we can make a positive difference in our communities of Carroll County.
It is important to note that CC Broadband committee continues to gather and research information, defining the issues of broadband or lack thereof in rural Carroll County and exploring possible solutions along with potential and available funding options. Some folks tell us that they have adequate internet service for their needs today, but wonder whether it will be adequate in five years with technology constantly changing. And the question we always pose to those folks, is dial up internet access of yesteryear adequate today?
We are proud that even though we are a new organization, the CC Broadband initiative was designated as one of two initiatives in rural New Hampshire, along with two initiatives in rural Vermont, one in Maryland and one in Arkansas included in a USDA Rural Community Development Initiative (RCDI) grant award through our partner, the NCC, for funding to conduct a feasibility study and to create a business plan.
The consortium of partners in this USDA RCDI grant application are CTC Technology & Energy (Maryland), Rural Innovation Strategies (Vermont), and ValleyNet (Carole Monroe). Carole Monroe has been a valued speaker, consultant and advisor at two of our CC Broadband workshops and several of our committee meetings. The grant application was
submitted June 5, 2019 and selected for funding in September 2019. The goal is to produce high-quality, early stage technical and financial guidance to enable these rural communities to develop successful strategic approaches to improve access to affordable, resilient, high-speed broadband services. The grant amount is $250,000 with matching $250,000 funds to be paid by the consortium partners. It was anticipated that three (3) years would be needed to complete this work but the work for NCC and CC Broadband
may be completed before the end of 2020. North Country Council (NCC) with Michelle Moren-Grey, Executive Director, is Carroll County’s sponsoring entity for this grant award.
Since our organizing meeting back in June 2019, we have been working with Carole Monroe to gather information from all the towns in the county. Requests for Information (RFI) have been sent to current internet service providers (ISPs) in the county from each town, all have responded with the exception of one major cable company in the county.
As a result of some telecommunication infrastructure barriers that we have found in rural New Hampshire, we have collaborated with others in rural New Hampshire, NHMA’s Margaret Byrnes, ValleyNet’s Carole Monroe and State Senators Bradley, Jeanne Dietsch, and Jay Kahn along with State Representative Jerry Knirk to file legislation to establish Broadband Districts, to correct bonding issues, and to put some teeth and time frames into the RFI process. All this legislation was combined into HB 1111 during the COVID-19 Emergency Declaration which passed by an overwhelming nonpartisan majority in the New Hampshire House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Sununu in July. This is an example of numbers making a huge difference.
Since organizing the CC Broadband Committee, we have met with several rural New Hampshire groups across the state sharing experiences and knowledge of the issues. We have attended meetings in Grafton County, Coos County, partnered with the NCC on video presentations on broadband and were invited to participate on a panel discussion at the New Hampshire Summit on Economic Inclusion and Digital Equity on Oct 29, 2019 at St Anselm College in Manchester.
The past several months of the COVID-19 pandemic and the declared emergency has emphasized and exacerbated the critical need for reliable, affordable, high-speed broadband to every premise in New Hampshire. The rural areas of New Hampshire are often left behind and it is in these areas where children and teachers often do not have enough broadband access to teach and learn in an on-line environment. It is in these areas where working from home proved difficult, if not impossible, due to limited internet access. New Hampshire residents who cannot access broadband connectivity face challenges with the ability to take advantage of distance learning, telemedicine, working remotely opportunities and accessing government programs and services.
Currently Carroll County Broadband is in the middle of conducting a county-wide survey of residents and businesses as part of the information gathering process for the feasibility study. Our partners, Rural Innovation Strategies and the North Country Council are conducting and evaluating this survey. This user survey is a CRITICAL part of the feasibility study being conducted for the county. The survey results will be used to inform the study, leading to models for broadband deployment in the County, as well as providing justification for funding of the eventual infrastructure buildout.
Today broadband access is a utility, one that we all should be confident of in times of crisis. As often as this need has been discussed, New Hampshirehas not yet found a solution. This is an opportunity to solve the problem, once and for all, for the 48,000 residents and 38,000 premises in Carroll County.
Carroll County Broadband has worked diligently over the last nineteen months to fully understand the limited broadband access in our rural county. Even though cable runs up many Main Streets, the side roads winding through our mountainous terrain and many lakes remain underserved or unserved. The rural nature of these areas makes\ it difficult for a for-profit internet provider to extend its service and satisfy its shareholders. However, we believe a municipal public/private partnership can achieve universal access. The Committee has reached out to current providers and potential providers to find solutions. With the towns working together, aggregating demand and building the necessary critical mass, it is possible to build a network that will leave no premises behind.
Rick Hiland is a selectman and chairman of the Town of Albany Selectboard. Rick also serves as a Board of Director with the NHMA. Rick serves as Co- Chairman of the CC Broadband effort along with the other Co-Chairman Steve Knox (and with the support of wife and fellow Albany resident, Sara).
Glenn Coppelman is Senior Economic Development Planner for the North County Council. Glenn can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 603.444.6303 X2020.
Carole Monroe is the CEO of ValleyNet, the operations company of ECFiber. Before joining ValleyNet in June of 2015, Carole worked as a Broadband Consultant, with the City of Keene, NH on a Gigabit City vision and as the Executive Director of New Hampshire FastRoads, a regional fiber-optic network in western New Hampshire delivering gigabit broadband to community anchor institutions, businesses, and residents. Carole can be reached by phone at 802.763.0330 and via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.