The Need for Speed

By Jessie Levine

Does your community have broadband or do you still have to access the internet by dial-up? If your community has cable, DSL, or other broadband service, do your residents wish they had more choices? Are you happy with the speed, service and price offered by your service providers? 

This legislative session, I—along with my colleagues from Hanover, Rindge, Sunapee, and Keene and the New Hampshire Municipal Association (NHMA) staff—have spent countless hours before the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee trying to win favor from the Committee for HB 1242, a bill introduced by Representatives Randy Foose (New London/Wilmot/Danbury) and David Pierce (Hanover/Lyme) that would allow municipalities to borrow money for the purposes of building broadband infrastructure in the same manner that voters consider bonding for roads, water and sewer systems, public buildings and economic development projects.

This makes sense, one would think. After all, New Hampshire is known for its local decision-making process in which voters come together for deliberative sessions and town meetings to set priorities for their communities and allocate taxpayer dollars as they see fit. If the voters decide that they want to spend their money to bring broadband to their community to support current and future local businesses, hospitals, schools and residences, then they should have that choice, right? 

Wrong, according to the incumbent service providers and state leadership. Those opposed to the local decision-making process have suggested that: (1) municipalities would compete with the private internet service providers, despite the fact that we repeatedly offered amendments that would prohibit municipalities from selling commercial services over the internet and that would require that the infrastructure be “open access,” which allows multiple service providers to share the same super highway); (2) local voters are not “sophisticated” enough to understand the complexities of municipal finance (mind you, these are the same voters who elected our leadership); (3) the construction of broadband infrastructure at the local level would create a financial hardship for Fairpoint, which is, according to them, rapidly building out to meet the broadband needs of New Hampshire (in fact, local build-outs would save Fairpoint significant investment statewide, allowing them to invest in other priorities); (4) municipalities are not capable of building and operating broadband infrastructure (as if wastewater systems are uncomplicated); (5) the State knows best (even though it is unable to fund its own Director of Broadband position); and (6) DSL will come to those who wait (according to Fairpoint’s agreement with the PUC, 95 percent of New Hampshire must be reached by 2013).

What if we are sick of waiting? What if elected officials are tired of being unable to respond to their constituents’ needs? What if DSL isn’t fast enough?

In the telecommunications world, experts distinguish between “little” broadband (DSL, cable modem and dial-up) and “big” broadband (10 to 100 Mbps and beyond). Many other communities in the U.S. are already building shared broadband infrastructure at 100 Mbps speeds, and many other countries have 100 Mbps or 1 Gigabit networks. In its new National Broadband Plan, the Federal Communications Commission’s number one goal is “At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second.” The FCC’s number four goal is: “Every community should have affordable access to at least 1 Gbps broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings.” Amen!

Rural New Hampshire needs “big” bandwidth to support schools, businesses, jobs and economic growth. Rural New Hampshire needs redundant networks for public safety and for mission-critical business applications that support jobs and economic growth. Rural New Hampshire needs symmetric bandwidth for business start ups, work from home jobs, and home-based businesses. Rural New Hampshire needs a choice among providers to create competitive pricing and a wider array of service options that attract new businesses and allow existing businesses to prosper.

Just as municipalities construct and maintain roads yet do not compete with FedEx, UPS or DHL to provide delivery services, municipalities seek the ability, if their voters desire, to construct public broadband infrastructure that could be shared by Fairpoint, Time Warner, Comcast, TDS, Segtel and any other small or large local or national service providers.

You have a say in this process. If you believe that the State needs to take steps to remove legal restrictions against broadband build-out, please contact your state representative or state senator and let them know that your community wants to decide its own broadband destiny.

Jessie Levine is town administrator in New London, New Hampshire. She can be reached by phone at 603.526.4821 or by e-mail. This column has been adapted from a version previously published in the February 4, 2010 edition of the Concord Monitor “My Turn” opinion column.