This week on Word of Mouth, we're continuing our series on the North Country by answering a listener's question about access to high-speed internet.
Steve Knox stood in his driveway, craning his neck at a telephone pole connected to his house in Albany, NH. The wire at the very top of every telephone pole carries electricity, while the lowermost wire is owned by whoever owns the pole, usually a telephone company. In between those two lies everything else: cable, internet, and competing phone companies.
“See the orange?” Steve points to a black cable marked with orange paint. “It’s the third line up. That’s the fiber.” Fiber is the type of line that can handle blindingly fast internet. Neither Steve nor his neighbors, though, can sign up for a fiber connection to their home. “I don’t believe it goes to any homes here,” Steve says, “but there it is! Somebody ran that line up there. So why aren’t they using it? That’s my question.”
It’s a good question, and a difficult one to answer. Telecom companies are notoriously, perhaps ironically, uncommunicative. Notwithstanding this little mystery, Steve has been trying to improve the internet connection to his home along with the rest of his town. Earlier this year, he and the chair of the Albany selectboard, Rick Hiland, launched a project called Carroll County Broadband. The two are the latest in New Hampshire to wonder how they might ramp up their town’s internet speed, and the latest to discover how daunting that process can be.
A few months back, we asked listeners to send us their questions about the North Country. Laura Clerkin, a librarian in Bethlehem, sent us the following question:
"What are towns doing, or what should they be doing, to increase the availability of high-speed internet in the North Country?"
The state, to the best of our current knowledge, is a patchwork: the internet is ubiquitous in some places and absent in others. Laura has a first hand view of that patchwork from the Bethlehem Library, which she describes as half library and half general store. Much of Bethlehem does not have reliable or fast internet service, so residents frequently stop in to the library when they need to get online. “You can sit here all day long,” Laura says,” and if we’re closed, our wifi works in the parking lot. So in almost any hour of any day, you can see cars in our lot, and they’re using the wifi.”
Laura says people use the library to access the internet for mundane reasons, like checking email or watching YouTube, as well as pressing matters, like applying for a job or completing a homework assignment. Employers frequently request online job applications, and some teachers require their students to view online course material for homework. A few miles north, a librarian in Northumberland, Gail Rosetto, sees a similar trend in her library. “They use it for job search, they use it for job applications… A lot of people don’t have computers at home, or if they do, they don’t have printers,” says Gail.
As the country became awash with internet over the past few decades, small dry spots appeared in remote areas where internet service providers declined to expand. The result is that rural areas, on average, have received fewer opportunities presented by high-speed internet. In a 2018 survey by Pew Research Center, roughly 60 percent of rural Americans said they have access to high-speed internet at home, compared to 70 percent of suburban and urban Americans.
“Students in the North Country have a hard time taking online courses, which of course universities are trying to push more and more of,” observes Linda Upham-Bornstein, a professor of legal history at Plymouth State University, “I know several that tried and got frustrated and gave up.” Slow internet speeds hamper a student’s ability to submit papers and to watch videos required for class, Linda says. “And it’s not just Coos county, it’s a lot of other rural communities throughout New Hampshire.”
For her part, Linda is unable to teach an online class, because she lives in a part of Lancaster where the only internet service available is satellite, a service that is slow and prone to outages. Linda says she can reach a download speed of 4Mbps on a good day, though she usually hovers somewhere around 2Mbps. For context, the FCC defines high-speed internet as at least 25Mbps download speed. Even basic online tasks are out of reach for Linda while she’s at home. “For me to do my powerpoints for class, if I want to add anything to it, I can’t upload it. I have to bring it down to campus to upload it… It’s very slow and tedious, it’s very time consuming. Life used to be a lot faster before the internet, to be honest.”
Linda often finds herself driving into town until she gets reception on her cellphone, which she then uses as a wifi hotspot to work from her car. “I have a hard time, because I’m a person who likes to be busy, so when I’m waiting for a download I get very stressed. I don’t like wasting that time because I have so much to do.”
Once, Linda called Spectrum, the cable provider that serves Lancaster’s downtown area, to see whether the company would bring cable to her street. Expanding coverage would require hanging new cables along the telephone poles to reach Linda’s house, and, as is often the case for such projects, she would have to foot the bill. “They told us if we wanted to pay $18,000 we could get service. So we said no thank you!”
Faced with the steep cost of improving their internet, many New Hampshire residents instead work around their existing internet speed. On town Facebook groups, NHPR asked residents of North Country towns about the internet in their neighborhood. Dozens of users responded. Some chimed in that their internet is just fine, while many lamented slow, spotty service or related stories of mystifying conflicts with their service providers. One resident who responded, Mandie Anderson, is an accountant in Groveton who relies on internet access for her education.
“I actually stopped halfway through my Associate’s degree,” Mandie says, “because I had Fairpoint and my internet was just not reliable. I could not sign in to my seminars, and I just ended up putting my degree on hold.” For a year and a half, until her internet service improved, Mandie pursued secondary careers. “It put my career on hold because I didn’t have that degree in my hand,” Mandie says. “The internet was definitely a necessity for me to get my degrees.”
Currently, the internet service providers in Mandie’s area don’t offer sufficient service to her home, so instead she relies on 4G cellular data through her Verizon service to get online. She bought a cell phone to use as a dedicated wifi hotspot, a workaround that several residents who responded on Facebook said they have turned to. “I run everything from it, from my laptop for school, to work, to... the kid’s Roku off it,” Mandie says. Paying for unlimited data costs somewhat more than a standard internet service would cost in a less remote area, though in Mandie’s case, it’s her most cost-effective option for decent service.
The blame for New Hampshire’s uneven internet access can’t be laid neatly at the feet of any particular person or institution. Like everywhere in the U.S., infrastructure for delivering internet service has largely been developed by private companies, and the resulting hodgepodge of service is the product of that industry’s demands.
Internet service in the North Country began with a single company: North Country Internet Access (NCIA). Carol Miller and her husband, Jeff Schall, started the Berlin-based company in 1990. At first, NCIA offered AOL dial-up access to a handful of homes, and while the pair knew they had tapped into a promising new field, they weren’t prepared for the sweep of change that followed.
“We were both working other jobs. My husband was a full time professor,” Carol says, “And I worked for a non profit… I worked radio part time, I did waitressing, and a bunch of other stuff, just trying to make ends meet. A typical North Country job: three or four jobs.” As demand for the service grew, she says, “we expanded from Berlin to the North Conway market, and then to the Littleton market, which proved to be very fruitful for us. And then over time began offering statewide connectivity.” Soon, Carol quit her other jobs. “On a Friday night, we would sit in the modem closet and watch all the modems light up. A good majority of our time was spent providing support and technical assistance to keep the network up and running.”
The phone companies, like Carol, were caught off guard by the sudden appearance—and demand—for the internet. Thousands of customers in every part of New Hampshire now wanted to use telephone infrastructure in a way it was never intended to be used. Phone lines, which are made of copper, are effective at transmitting phone calls, but struggle to carry the significantly larger volume of information required to visit a typical website today. In cities and towns with access to high-speed internet, copper cables have been superceded by fiber.
In her current position as Director of Broadband Technology in the NH Bureau of Economic Affairs, Carol now helps towns develop plans to install fiber. “Fiber is actually glass. And it’s able to handle waves of data, unbelievable amount of capacity,” she explains. “And I’ll be the first one to tell you that towns looking to change their destiny, or to enhance services, should look at fiber.”
Adopting fiber, however, is expensive. Typically, internet service providers charge around thirty thousand dollars per mile to install fiber optic lines. The price tag reflects the complexity of physically rearranging existing cables on a telephone pole to make room for a new cable, not to mention the work of striking a deal with the company that owns the pole to purchase access.
Even the process of finding out where, in a given town, high-speed internet is and is not available is a costly and confusing undertaking. Coverage maps from internet service providers are not always accurate or public, and the small amount of federal funding that New Hampshire received to undertake its own mapping of internet infrastructure in the state dried up in 2015. Maps generated with that funding have been—given the constant expansion and contraction of internet service—rendered inaccurate over time.
“Most companies will invest where their dollar is going to go the furthest,” Carol points out. “And I shrug to say this, but I feel I should, if service were regulated, everyone would have it. But because it’s an unregulated service, meaning there’s no penalty for not providing it, it’s simply left up to the private sector to decide where to invest.”
Cities and suburbs are the first choice for internet service providers to expand. The more households located on a given mile of street, the faster the company will recoup its investment into that mile of infrastructure.
A quiet North Country neighborhood, the type of environment that attracts people to the North Country in the first place, represents a much slower return on investment. “Unless there are some grassroot efforts and some work done at the municipal level—and I believe that is the key,” Carol says, “those towns will be left behind.”
While ponying up for fiber can be incredibly costly, not paying for fiber comes with its own set of costs for a town. The population of the North Country has gradually but steadily declined in recent years, at least in part because young residents move away more often than they move in. For economic planners, attracting families, particularly young families, is a crucial component to their town’s development strategy.
Laura, the librarian in Bethlehem who wrote in to ask about internet access, is in the process of moving from St. Johnsbury, Vermont, to New Hampshire. After working for years in the center of Bethlehem’s community, Laura wanted to live in the town, but says she could not find a house for sale that fit her family’s needs and received adequate internet service. “And my husband works from home—we have to have it,” she says, “We looked and looked.” After searching Bethlehem to no avail, she and her husband choose a location nearby in Littleton. The experience made clear to her how severely Bethlehem’s internet infrastructure disadvantages the town, compared to slightly larger neighboring towns like Littleton and Berlin.
“It’s a problem here,” Laura says, “and it’s an even bigger problem if you go north, up to Colebrook or Pittsburg. Some people in the North Country are on dial-up. I mean, it’s the twenty-first century, that should not be happening! And it’s impacting businesses that might want to move here when we could really use the jobs, as well as people who want to live here. At one point we were looking at an area on the Dalton-Littleton line… As soon as you cross the sign that says welcome to Dalton, there was no internet... You tell people from away, from down south, you tell them these types of things and they don’t believe you. What do you mean everyone doesn’t have high speed internet?”
For towns that are feeling this problem weigh upon their economic future, there’s no particularly clear path to scoring faster internet. Steve Knox, the Albany resident, has spent the past few months gleaning as much insight as he can from the few cases in which towns have successfully embarked upon internet expansion projects.
One town that Steve and Rick Hiland, the co-chair of Carroll County Broadband, have looked toward is Chesterfield, which earlier this year took advantage of a recent New Hampshire law that allows towns to issue bonds for broadband projects. Chesterfield issued a $1.8 million bond, which they will use to bring fiber to every home in town. The plan is the fruit of a laborious negotiation between the town and Consolidated Communications, the provider that will install fiber and will ultimately own the fiber network.
While this deal seemed to suit Chesterfield’s needs, Steve says he is not certain Albany would be able to strike a similar bargain with a private company. “I don’t think it’s going to work if each town does it on its own,” he says, “I think we need to come together.”
A second project that Steve and Rick have been taking notes on is ECFiber, a municipal fiber network in Vermont. Twenty-four towns that would not have been able to pay for fiber networks individually formed a municipality to invest in a publicly-owned fiber network, which is now shared by all of the towns in the way that sewer or water infrastructure might be shared. “At this point in time,” Steve suggested, “they’ve kind of become our model—maybe this is the model we want to use.”
A law recently signed by the governor, SB 103, allows multiple towns to collectively issue municipal bonds for broadband infrastructure projects, which Steve believes is a promising new tool for towns like Albany to build publicly owned fiber networks.