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N.H. lawmakers will decide whether to invest $50 million to build out broadband access

Sara Ernst
This is a file photo from 2019. The Sandwich Broadband Advisory Committee held a listening session to learn more about residents' concerns about local Internet access.

This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other outlets to republish its reporting.

A program to spend $50 million to build broadband infrastructure is up for a vote before the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee on Friday.

The Broadband Connect Program is designed to reach residents and businesses who lack access to high-speed internet by incentivizing internet service providers to build additional infrastructure to cover remote parts of the state.

Of the approximately 30,000 addresses that lack access to high-speed internet in the state, this program would serve around half, according to an estimate from thegovernor’s office when the program was announced.

In June, the state asked internet service providers to bid on the contract, which doesn’t require them to contribute to the cost of construction. Internet service providers have often neglected remote and rural areas because it isn’t profitable to invest in sparsely populated areas.

Giving public money to private companies to build infrastructure that they will then use to charge consumers raised concerns among some broadband advocates last year, when the state was preparing to receive federal funding, especially when there aren’t guarantees about future quality or affordability of services. Henry Underwood, who works on broadband issues for the Southwest Region Planning Commission, said those concerns are relevant to this program as well.

The state will require the winning contractor to offer at least one low-cost option at a speed that would allow for telework and remote learning, according to the request for proposals. And the state is also prioritizing internet providers such as cooperatives, non-profits, or government-affiliated organizations like municipalities in the bidding process.

State officials are looking for a bidder that can provide service to as many unserved addresses for the least cost, and they want the work done as quickly as possible, with a federal requirement that projects be completed no later than 2026, the request for proposals states.

Underwood said incumbent providers are in the best position to win the $50 million contract. Municipalities would be hard pressed to compete for the contract in the allotted time frame, he said. “We’re not ready,” he said. “We don’t have a ready candidate that I can think of to just jump on this.”

The state plans to award the $50 million contract to a single applicant, according to the request for proposals. Funding for the program comes from the American Rescue Plan Act. The funding must be approved by the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee and the Executive Council.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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