Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Local Internet Improvement Districts in New Hampshire - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 179
Local governments in New Hampshire are quite limited in how they can use public financing to invest in fiber optic networks, but Hanover is exploring an approach to create voluntary special assessment districts that would finance open access fiber optic networks. Town Manager Julia Griffin joins us for Community Broadband Bits Episode 179 to explain their plans.
Though New Hampshire does not have any explicit barriers against municipal networks, the state has not authorized local governments to bond for them, which has certainly limited local authority to ensure high quality Internet access. But Hanover is one of several communities around the country that is exploring special assessment districts (sometimes called local improvement districts) that would allow residents and local businesses to opt into an assessment that would finance construction and allow them to pay it off over many years. This approach is well suited to Hanover, which has access to the Fast Roads open access network.
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Julia: As a town manager I'd like anything that supports local economic development. I think an open access network could help do that.
Lisa: Hello, you are listening to episode 179 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This week we take listeners to New Hampshire to the community of Hanover. Chris visits with town manager Julia Griffin.
There have been some recent changes in state law that effect what actions local communities can take when trying to improve their connectivity. Hanover plans to use a special assessment district, a new model created by state law, to finance a municipal network. Julia provides details on the model, describes Hanover's open access plans, and talks about the challenges they face. Now here are Chris and Julia Griffin, town manager of Hanover, New Hampshire.
Chris: Welcome to another addition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today I'm speaking with Julia Griffin, the town manager of Hanover, New Hampshire. Welcome to the show.
Julia: Thanks very much.
Chris: Julia, I'm really excited to speak with you. We're following up a little bit in a tour of New England. We've been talking about what's happening in Maine lately and Vermont. I'm excited to get a sense of what's happening in your corner of New Hampshire. Maybe you can start by telling us a little bit about Hanover.
Julia: Hanover sits right on the Connecticut River. We share a border with Vermont. It's home to Dartmouth College. It's a community of about 11,500 people, which includes the Dartmouth student body, beautiful rural community but surprisingly sophisticated for a relatively small New Hampshire town and largely because Dartmouth College is here and also a big regional medical center. Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center is right over the line in the neighboring city Lebanon.
We have a lot of professional physicians and academicians here, college administrators, but in a beautiful rural setting. We attract a lot of visitors to the region. We're surprisingly sophisticated in terms of what we have to offer here relative to restaurants and shopping and theater and lectures and that sort of thing and a community that is very heavily dependent on the internet for communication as an academic institution.
Chris: Just how much of your economy is dependent on presidential campaigns?
Julia: We love it this time of year because the candidates are all around us. It's very dependent. We have a lot of campaign visits to this region between mid October and the first of the nation primary, which looks like it will happen on the second Tuesday of February. A very vibrant area in terms of people's involvement and political discourse, folks expect to be able to press the flash with candidates. They readily attend rallies and information sessions. It's not unusual to be sitting in a local cafe just minding your own business having breakfast when a famous candidate walks in to greet people. It's a busy place in a state where it's very easy to meet candidates if you want to do that.
Chris: I think that's an important thing to note as we're going to be talking about what you're doing related to broadband, and to get there, we have to talk about something that always annoys us at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance which is in New Hampshire the state has to authorize anything that you do as a community. It's what we call a Dillon Rule state. I'm curious what does the state allow you to do in broadband and what can't you do? We'll talk about the legislation in a minute that's recently changed some of that. What historically has been the limitations and the authorizations that you have?
Julia: As a municipality in New Hampshire essentially we cannot invest in the construction of broadband infrastructure. I've been working on this issue, Chris, for the better part of fifteen years in this state because we hear from our own residents how important it is that they have robust internet access, and, yet, as a municipality we're not enabled to invest in helping to bring that infrastructure to our region.
There is a bonding for broadband statute that's in place, but it's so impossible to implement because the telecommunication companies essentially made sure that it's ground rules are so onerous that it's virtually impossible for any municipality to take advantage of it. Attempts over the last ten years to have a piece of legislation passed that would allow more liberally for communities to bond for broadband, obviously, if they're local legislative body deems it a priority, those efforts have failed. At this point there's very little municipalities can do, or a state with essentially two cable television providers.
They're a couple of small ones. They've divided up the state between Time Warner and Comcast and have very specific rules about when they'll deploy cable, which means that a lot of our rural areas are unserved. Then we're dealing with very limited DSL service from FairPoint, which is our key telephone provider. The options are pretty limited for a community to actively invest in infrastructure to help serve their citizen's internet needs.
Chris: Well, I think that maybe one of the reasons that FastRoads was so important there the federal government really helped with the Stimulus Act to incent deployment. How close is FastRoads to you? What's your relationship to it?
Julia: I'm actually on the board of New Hampshire FastRoads and have been involved with a number of other municipal managers in trying to bring that project to fruition. The FastRoads' backbone runs right through Hanover down along the route ten spine, which runs north/south along the Connecticut River. One of it's key equipment closets is actually located in the lower level of the Hanover Community Center. We're in an optimal location to take advantage of the existence of that backbone as are about twenty-one other communities that are situated along the backbone route.
Chris: This I think brings us up to what just happened in an interesting change at the legislator. I mean for years you and others have been encouraging the legislator to give communities more options to make their own investments. You got, I think, one tool, not everything certainly that we'd like to see. Tell me about what's just changed in the New Hampshire toolbox for communities?
Julia: A bill was adopted by the House and Senate and signed by the governor in July known as House Bill 486, which is an act that authorizes towns and cities to establish special assessment districts, and these are public facilities for the purposes of serving transportation, sanitary, sewer, solid waste, drainage, water, but most importantly communication infrastructure to essentially create these districts and then bill individuals who reside within the district for a prorated share of the cost of installing that communication infrastructure.
Prior to this we've been able to create districts for water and sewer and sidewalks and street lights and even for downtown maintenance but never for communication's infrastructure, nor has the statute, that have been on the books for years, been as expansive as this one is in terms of laying out just how we make these assessment districts work. For the first time I think there is a role here for a municipal entity to help ensure that fiber is installed and that homeowners and businesses have an opportunity to connect to that network.
We're actually looking in Hanover at doing this all underground rather than attaching to the poles because the cost of make-ready and just the politics of make-ready work and pole attachments in New Hampshire is expensive and fraught with all sorts of challenges. From our perspective if we can trench and install underground conduit and then make it available to an entity like FastRoads, who can bring open access internet service to our residents, that's what we're hoping to do here.
Chris: Well, I think you'd also have the benefit then of not having to pay those pole fees. I think people when they're looking at this sort of thing may forget this is a network that'll exist for many decades. Those pole fees are going to add up over time. If you can get it in the ground, you're probably going to benefit quite a bit.
Julia: The pole fees are expensive. Those attachments are also taxable. In addition the cost to prepare the poles through the make-ready work and permitting process that can take twelve to eighteen months. It's more than half the cost of the installation of the project. We're really looking for how we can do this feasibly, economically for our residents in terms of making it as affordable as possible, but also streamlining the process by doing it ourselves in our own right of way.
Chris: Now, as I understand it a lot of times like a water project for sanitary sewer or for clean water would be none voluntary, that typically everyone has to participate, but this would be a voluntary broadband assessment district, right?
Julia: Right, it would. Although in order to implement a district you need 60% of those who'll be receiving this service to approve of the creation of the district. What's going to be critical for us, Chris, is that we go out and work with our neighborhoods to ensure that people are excited about this prospect and eager to be able to take advantage of connection to an open access network. We have to do a lot of legwork on the ground to sell this to our residents.
Chris: If I was a homeowner, how does this work? Can I cut a check up front or just attach it to a long-term payment plan? What are the options that I available to me?
Julia: I think we would probably offer both. Some people would probably prefer to finance this as part of a home improvement loan. Others would prefer to pay semi-annually as an attachment to their property tax bill. The legislation itself gives us the ability to assess this fee in multiple ways. I could see us coming up with a hybrid approach which allows individuals to check which payment process works best for them.
Chris: Are you guys leading the way on this? Are other communities keeping an eye on what's happening? Is there someone else that's also doing it?
Julia: Chris, I don't know that we're leading the way, but we're certainly trying to provide a model for what's viable under this current new piece of legislation. We've got the neighboring community of Lyme, New Hampshire, which is much smaller than Hanover, but has already had their construction plan developed. I think they're looking at doing the very same thing.
Chris: That's wondering. I don't know if you're aware there's some folks in Idaho in a community called Ammon. We've talked with them a number of times. They're looking at using what they call local improvement district mostly the same tools, offers the same benefits I think, and requires people to be supportive of it. This seems like an interesting way of building this infrastructure. Actually like you they're planning on going open access as well. Tell me a little bit about why that's motivating for you?
Julia: Well, I've long been a fan of open access and open access network because I think it's really important that we provide options for New Hampshire residents. Quite frankly when you introduce an element of competition, you're also going to be providing them with affordable options. To give you an example of our very own municipality, we as a municipal entity itself is a customer of the FastRoads' network. We previously purchased twenty megabits of internet access monthly at a cost of $1,200.00 when we really had no choice. There was one key provider in the area for our municipal facilities.
Once we became a customer on the FastRoads' network, we have the choice of four different internet service provider. We're not purchasing fifty megabits for $460.00 a month. More than two times the bandwidth for a dynamic set of town facilities at one/third the cost. What was critical in achieving that savings and additional bandwidth is the competition that open access introduces to the playing field. I liked the idea of multiple service providers being able to provide services over open access' network. I think it also facilitates a lot of entrepreneurial efforts to come up with new services that homeowners and small businesses need. The FastRoads' network has from the beginning been committed to open access, and we've enjoyed watching it take hold.
Chris: One of the things that I really like about open access as well is I think it lower the barriers of entry. You can have some local providers that really have a localized focus as opposed to just seeing the telecommunications market dominated by firms that are located out of state or even out of the region. Are you seeing any of that? Have you seen New Hampshire companies able to become service providers?
Julia: Absolutely. One great example is a company called WiValley, which is based just outside of Keene, New Hampshire in the southwest corner of the state. They've really cornered the market in providing residential internet access for customers on the FastRoads' network. They've done it in a really creative way. We have three other providers, two of which are New Hampshire based, that provide services on the internet through the FastRoads' network. Again, anything we can do to faster local economic development is an extra boost from the system. We see a lot of potential internet applications available to residents. In a community like this we're pretty receptive to doing things over the internet. As a town manager, I like anything that supports local economic development. I think an open access network could help do that.
Chris: It's interesting when you say, "They've cornered the market", on an open access network to corner the market it basically means you have to have really good services because people still have a choice. It's not like one corners the market in my neighborhood where Comcast cornered the market by being the only one that really sells high-speed internet access.
Julia: Well, they've earned customer support. They have a great customer help center. They're very residential customer oriented. They've benefited from that approach. I think it's been a successful approach for them. Wouldn't you love to see a half a dozen companies that develop that expertise? As they compete with each other they really push each other to continue to improve their services and to make their products as competitive as possible.
Chris: Right. That's certainly the hope. I guess one of the things that I'm curious about with economic development is whether you think there's going to be ... Do you have areas of town where the local businesses are agitating and really excited to be the first, or do you think it's going to be more of a residential phenomenon to use these districts?
Julia: As a town manager knowing the residential internet needs are significant because there are many people in the more outlined rural areas of town who have no service, no Comcast cable is available, no FairPoint DSL is available. They're relying on very spotty satellite service, and they're just set to be tied. Our initial focus in terms of trenching and running conduit will be to get to those folks. I can also tell you that we have lots of businesses in the downtown and in town area as well as residents who right now have Comcast or FairPoint DSL but are clamoring for higher bandwidth. I think we're going to be all about how can we be all things to all people here in an efficient path of construction as possible.
Chris: There was several years where I went out to rock climb in the Rumney area every fall. I know that one of the things that comes with great rock climbing opportunities is it's poorly served by wireless. I know you guys have ... It's pretty hard terrain there to get around. I hope to make it back out there and to visit you and see what you've done because one of the best diners I've ever experienced was in Plymouth, which I think is pretty close to you. I'm sure you've got some diners to rival it there.
Julia: We do. We have a fabulous place in Hanover called Lou's. There's a wonderful place in Lebanon called the Lebanon Diner. Folks love their diner food in New England and their lively spots for breakfast and lunch. Even though the wireless service can be spotty the food is great.
Chris: Yes. Soon you'll have both this wired access and then presumably you could do shorter range wireless which will work. You'll have everything you need.
Julia: We're just eager to get started. I'm looking forward to creating a working model that we hope other New Hampshire communities are going to be able to take hold of and run with.
Chris: Terrific. Well, thank you so much for coming on and telling us about your approach.
Julia: That's very much, Chris.
Lisa: That was Chris and Julia Griffin, town manager of Hanover, New Hampshire, discussing recent state law changes and Hanover's plans to bring better connectivity to the community. Follow Chris on Twitter where his handle is @communitynets. You can also follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter where the handle is @muninetworks. Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at email@example.com. We want to thank Arnie Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. Thank you for listening to episode 179 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.