Grafton County’s broadband push faces challenge from incumbent providers
For Heidi Reynolds, not having reliable high-speed internet at her home on the border of Lyme and Hanover was taking a toll. The grueling 60-plus-hour workweek as executive director of the AVA Gallery in Lebanon was depressing, and the option to work from home nonexistent.
So, without another job lined up, Reynolds quit – and one of the “exacerbating” reasons was a poor internet connection.
“Not having any respite in sight, I just knew I couldn’t continue spending 60 to 70 hours in the office all the time,” she said.
Reynolds believes that everyone in the state should have access to reliable, high-speed internet: to encourage businesses to remain in the state, to keep new residents around, and to ensure students can keep up with school.
Nik Coates is working on a project that would bring the state closer to the goal of universal coverage. Coates, the town administrator for Bristol, is also part of the Grafton County Broadband Committee, which applied for $26.2 million in federal funds that would go toward building out broadband in that county. But the grant process – through the National Transportation Infrastructure Agency – is facing a challenge from incumbent providers who say they are already providing service in the region.
Residents of those areas say that’s not the reality on the ground.
“If they are saying we have adequate service, they are wrong. We do not,” said Dorothy Heinrichs, a resident of Orange who has been struggling to work from home for the past 20 months.
Heinrichs isn’t the only one to say so. A survey of nearly 2,500 Grafton County residents found that in all of the county’s 39 communities, residents had speeds that were slower than the federal definition of broadband, registering under 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits per second upload.
For Coates, the minimum speeds set in the federal definition are insufficient – which is why the project Grafton County is proposing would build out fiber-optic cable. Fiber can provide faster speeds than options like DSL, and it’s considered more reliable than satellite.
“You can’t do remote school, you can’t do remote work, you can’t do telehealth. You can’t do all those things on that level of speed,” he said. “And what we’ve seen with all of our data collection is people aren’t getting close to that.”
Fiber is expensive, and in rural areas the population is too sparse to drive private companies – in search of a return on investment – to build. Coates sees this initiative as a collaborative one: The grant would cover construction costs of what’s called middle-mile fiber, but then companies would be able to build out the final mile, reaching residents at their homes. His concern is that the corporations see the project as competition.
“The whole point of the middle mile is to facilitate end connections,” Coates said. “We’re not trying to compete with these guys. We’re trying to drive (broadband) to the towns and make the return on investment make more sense for these companies.”
That’s a critical proposal because of data showing that some people in the county aren’t receiving any service at all. Others report registering speeds of just a half megabit down and a half megabit up, far below the federal standard.
But at the same time that residents are pointing to an urgent need for faster technology, Coates worries that the challenges from incumbent providers – Comcast, Atlantic, Charter, and Consolidated Communications – could stop the project.
“It’s just concerning. We’re trying to solve a problem here, and these companies are saying there’s not a problem,” Coates said.
A spokesperson for Comcast, Elizabeth Walden, said the company made “informational filings” after the NTIA invited broadband service providers to submit information about services offered in areas mentioned in grant applications.
In an Oct. 4 press release, Acting NTIA Administrator Evelyn Remaley said: “NTIA’s top priority in this program is to provide broadband service to as many unserved households and businesses as possible. We are committed to awarding funds to the communities that most need the support.”
A written statement from Consolidated’s president of consumer and small business, Erik Garr, said “we support the county’s efforts to reach their unserved areas.”
“We know that there are unserved areas in Grafton County, and we also know that there are areas which we do serve today. Like other providers, we shared information with NTIA, as the granting authority, on specific areas within the county where we have retail broadband and middle-mile infrastructure in place today. Our hope is this information will help NTIA prioritize their funding on unserved areas in the county,” Garr said.
According to Garr, Consolidated is currently working to provide 400,000 New Hampshire homes with fiber infrastructure by 2025.
In total, the corporations challenged nearly 3,200 census blocks in Grafton County – areas where they say they are already providing service.
“Our challenge is limited to census blocks where Charter already has a network presence and is already serving customers,” said Lara Pritchard, a spokesperson for the company.
But some residents say even if they have service, it isn’t good enough. And in some cases, residents pay for higher speeds that they say providers aren’t delivering.
Heinrichs and her husband, Jay, pay $188 a month for a business plan with Consolidated Communications, but the speed and reliability of the service are often unworkable – instead Jay Heinrichs often resorts to using a hotspot on his phone just to keep working, despite living across the street from Consolidated’s transfer box.
“The most frustrating part of working remotely is the terrible, awful, nearly unworkable internet connectivity. Service is very slow and service interruptions take place multiple times a day,” Dorothy Heinrichs wrote in response to a survey that the Grafton County Broadband Committee asked residents to complete.
In an interview, Jay Heinrichs said the situation has been so frustrating that at one point his wife was ready to pitch the computer out of the window. It makes running an internet-dependent business like his own hard. Removing that barrier, he said, is important enough that the future of the rural town depends on it.
“In order to keep this place both a beautiful rural town and at the same time allow people to make a living, we have to be able to welcome more and more people who work like us – who work remotely,” he said.
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