The NH Electric Cooperative Board of Directors at a special session on Monday approved the extension of high-speed internet service to nearly 17,000 of its members in 32 towns in Grafton County, from Bristol to Littleton and of the Connecticut River at Campton.
“This decision is the most significant commitment to date in the cooperative’s revolutionary entry into broadband,” said Richard Knox of New Hampshire Broadband Advocates, a grassroots group that first urged the utility non-profit to extend high-speed internet service to its members in 2020. “It means NHEC is serious when it says it wants to bring this essential service to rural towns neglected by other internet service providers.”
Over the past two years, NHEC has limited its broadband projects to just four towns – Lempster, Colebrook, Sandwich and Acworth – potentially serving 2,800 of its electricity customers. The Sandwich and Acworth networks are expected to be operational this spring.
By contrast, Grafton County’s newly approved project will reach more than one-third of the co-op’s 118-city service area. Construction of Grafton County is expected to take 12 to 18 months.
“It really puts us in the game. It’s really a whole different order of magnitude,” said Sandwich’s Leo Dwyer, an NHEC board member who led the broadband project. “And when we get to the end of this, it will continue. We are looking at a series of authorizations over the next two years, let’s say, that will allow all of our members to have broadband access. The member-owned utility serves 85,000 New Hampshire residents and businesses.
“What that means is that we’re in it for the long haul,” added Bill Darcy of Benton, another NHEC board member who has lobbied to add broadband to the l’s mission. ‘business.
NHEC declined to put a price tag on the Grafton County project, but according to the widely cited rule of thumb of around $30,000 per mile of installed fiber, it should cost at least $30 million.
The proposal won the support of eight of the 11 NHEC board members. Two opposed and one abstained.
“I can’t support a plan that doesn’t meet the needs of our members,” said Board Member Carolyn Kedersha. “The financial model does not take into account the resources needed to manage this in a sustainable way.” Doubts were also raised by Daniel Senie, who voted no, and Tom Mongeon, who abstained.
But the majority dismissed those doubts. “We have a program that will be extremely helpful to our members,” said Ed French, Board Member. “We have always kept in mind that the electricity distribution business cannot be harmed. I think we have a program that will take us forward in that regard.
The board-approved resolution notes that the Grafton County project is actually smaller in scope than the territory covered by a $6.5 million Federal Communications Commission grant last year to bring broadband to 70 blocks of census tracts that the FCC considers unserved. The offer chosen by the cooperative was deemed financially feasible by its board of directors when it was submitted.
“Updated financial models and project analysis from NHEC demonstrate that providing fiber internet service to members produces better financial results than the 2020 ‘tender model’ on which bids RDOF were based and meet all of the Board’s financial criteria,” Monday’s resolution noted.
This is largely due to the influx of new federal funds for rural broadband expansion – $7 billion in the American Rescue Plan Act passed last year and $65 billion in Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, enacted last November. The Sununu administration is currently deciding how to allocate $121 million coming to New Hampshire under the American Rescue Plan Act.
“We’re making this commitment ‘to provide fiber optic broadband to Grafton County’ in what we see is a modified environment for grants,” Dwyer said. “The state wants people to be served as soon as possible and we may be their best way to do that.”
Dwyer said the co-op’s broadband service will cost around $50 per month for 100 megabits per second (download and above) and $90 per month for gigabit service. The cooperative is considering a 2 Gbps option for not much more. He said the co-op will benefit from a new federal program that will provide a monthly subsidy of $30 to broadband customers whose income is below 200% of the federal poverty level – or $55,500 for a family of four. – and to the beneficiaries. other programs such as SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps) and Free School Lunch.
The timing of the Grafton County project could be propitious for the Town of Wentworth, which will consider a proposal at its March 12 town meeting to launch a $1.5 million bond issue to subsidize a fiber optic network in partnership with Consolidated Communications – a business model pioneered by Chesterfield and other cities.
NHEC’s decision to install fiber in Wentworth and dozens of other towns in Grafton County, without asking the towns for money, may anticipate this bond issue.
“I think it will make a huge difference in Wentworth,” said local resident Bernice Sullilvan. “I hope that the bond issue will be rejected. If the cooperative comes out of it, it will be as fast, if not faster, than CCI. So there is no reason to put up a bond.
Towns in Grafton County online to get Co-op broadband service are Ashland, Benton, Bath, Bridgewater, Bristol, Campton, Canaan, Dorchester, Easton, Ellsworth, Grafton, Groton, Hanover, Haverhill, Hebron, Holderness , Landaff, Littleton, Lisbon, Lyman, Lyme, Monroe, Orange, Orford, Piermont, Plymouth, Rumney, Sugar Hill, Thornton, Warren, Wentworth and Woodstock.