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Broadband Provider and Economic Development Group Clash in the North Country

Marcelo Graciolli/Flickr

For nearly as long as anyone can remember, there’s been talk about expanding broadband and cell coverage in the North Country. Last spring several small groups in the region announced plansto provide faster internet and better cell reception. Among others, Sen Jeanne Shaheen was there to applaud the announcement.

But their plan is being held up by the biggest economic development group in the North Country.  And that’s infuriating some other economic development and elected officials above the notches.

NHPR North Country reporter Chris Jensen talks with All Things Considered host Peter Biello.

What’s this project and who’s pitching it?

The project was largely put together by this small group, the Coos Economic Development Corporation.

It’s working with a company called TCC Networks to provide more broadband around Groveton. TCC has already done work in the North Country as well as Maine. The idea is to put TCC’s equipment on a tower up on Morse Mountain in Groveton.

But that tower is owned by another group called the Northern Community Investment Corporation or NCIC.  It’s really the 800-pound gorilla of economic development in the North Country and it wasn’t a partner in the deal.

NCIC put up the tower a few years ago using almost $600,000 in federal and other funds so it could offer offer broadband service through its own business called Wireless Linc, which is operated by Secured Network Services or SNS.

So it sounds like this new project would be a competitor to the current service offered by NCIC’s Wireless Linc?

Here's what NCIC’s president Jon Freeman said in a recent interview:

“My immediate reaction was ‘Holy Mackerel, this situation is putting both TCC and NCIC in a vulnerable spot because we are in an area that doesn’t have enough customers to make providing service in a break-even, possibly profitable way possible.”

And according to Freeman, Wireless Linc – is just about breaking even.

Do we know how many people are without high-speed internet or cell service in the North Country?

It has gotten much better in the last few years but there is still a big need for cell coverage and faster and cheaper internet.

One would think different economic development groups would work together to all help the North Country. But that doesn’t seem to be the case?

No, that’s not happening. TCC wanted to put its equipment on the tower and would pay for that.  But since NCIC owns the tower it can decide who gets to use frequencies coming from it.  The Federal Communications Commission says a tower owner can legally do that.

Through the spring and summer NCIC wouldn’t  agree to share more than two of at least 17 channels and those two had the signal pointed in a very limited direction.

And what this ultimately means for the North Country is fewer people have access and Wireless Linc/SNS has no new competition.

What kind of reaction has this caused?

Here in the North Country, a lot of people are upset that the TCC project isn’t moving forward and that it appears that Northern Community Investment Corporation is blocking it. 

One of those people is Coos County commissioner Rick Samson, who represents the area. He says he’s concluded that NCIC is undermining the project.  Here’s what he says:

“That is unacceptable. Totally unacceptable to me.”

It’s worth noting that both companies get taxpayer funds in one case from the same federal agency, the Northern Borders Regional Commission.  The border commission’s Federal Co-chair, Mark Scarano, told me the agency is watching the negotiations “with interest and hope that an accommodation can be made.”

What does Northern Community Investment Corporation say?

Freeman says there have been a series of unfortunate miscommunications and he’s sorry about that.

“If I could help TCC I would be there in a second,” he said.

“What’s my gain? We’re not going to get rich in Groveton. I don’t make any money on the cell tower. We’re not going to make money of significance with broadband.”

But critics say by blocking TCC Freeman’s organization can protect its own struggling broadband business.

Late last week Freeman insisted he is still willing to cooperate with TCC for the good of the region.  But TCC has given up trying to work with NCIC and is looking for other locations, said Bob DeAngelis, the executive director of the Coos Economic Development Corporation.

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