Members of the New Hampshire Electric Co-op will finish voting Tuesday on whether to add broadband service to their utility’s mission.
The push to bring better internet to rural towns has already drawn interest from developers, as coronavirus heightens the focus on connectivity.
Retired journalist Richard Knox of Center Sandwich has helped lead the campaign to get the 80,000-member co-op to agree to “facilitate access to broadband” as part of its by-laws.
He says the recent weeks of the stay-at-home order made this issue feel more important than ever.
"It's made it very plain just how necessary good, reliable, fast, affordable internet is to practically everybody no matter where they live,” Knox says.
Nearly 900 of the Plymouth-based utility’s customers signed a petition to get the issue on their annual ballot. That's the first time co-op members have used the election in this way, according to Knox. They also nominated a slate of broadband-friendly board candidates.
The co-op’s board voted on a split margin to signal its opposition to the by-law change.
They say in a press release that they’re working on broadband development in other ways, but are worried the by-law change could lead to higher rates or otherwise undermine the utility’s core mission to provide electric service.
"Many rural electric co-ops have already gone down this path and they seem to be doing fine,” he says, pointing to a 2019 report identifying more than 100 such utilities nationwide that have expanded into broadband. “And there's money available to do it – both private investment and, significantly, federal money."
The debate at the electric co-op comes amid a flurry of policy developments on rural broadband during the pandemic.
Governor Chris Sununu says the state will make $50 million in federal coronavirus aid available for rural broadband development. Knox says he hopes towns like Sandwich – or companies like the co-op – will be eligible.
State legislators also advanced a set of bills designed to support rural broadband last week.
And earlier this month, New Hampshire’s Congressional delegation touted the state’s addition to a federal broadband mapping program, used to help policy-makers identify areas that could benefit from expanded internet service.
The state’s utility ratepayer advocate, Don Kreis, agrees that the electric co-op could find an effective and rate-neutral way to fold broadband into its goals.
He says it mirrors the way co-ops like New Hampshire’s initially formed – during the Great Depression, when large investor-owned utilities weren’t expanding into rural areas.
“That consigned most people who lived and worked on farms to poverty and misery, and electric co-ops stepped into the breach,” Kreis says. “We have basically the same situation with broadband now, where vast swaths of rural America, including lots of places in New Hampshire, really have no effective way of connecting to the internet.
“So it’s a market failure that the co-op could help address,” Kreis says.
Expansion of broadband in the co-op’s territory – which includes more than 100 towns across the Lakes Region, Sunapee area, North Country and inner Seacoast – may happen even without Tuesday's vote.
The co-op says it's recently had contact with four companies about the potential to partner on broadband development.
Supporters hope the utility will at least facilitate access for internet developers to install fiber-optic lines using telephone poles and other infrastructure that the co-op owns. They also say the co-op could use its bargaining power to land a broadband deal for multiple towns in its service area – something people like Richard Knox say towns can’t do alone.
Voting has been underway in the co-op election since mid-May and ends Tuesday afternoon. The co-op expects to report results from the election later this week.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that voting in the co-op election would only take place tomorrow. In fact, it concludes tomorrow and has been underway since May 18.