There’s a sign in the middle of Lempster, N.H. that reads: “On nearby Allen Road on December 4, 1939, the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative set its first utility pole, an important event in bringing electric service to the farms, mills and homes of the New Hampshire countryside.”
Richard Knox, chairman of the citizen group New Hampshire Broadband Advocates and a member of Broadband Advisory Committee in the town of Sandwich, wrote in the New Hampshire Union Leader about the history behind the sign and why modern-day co-op members are once again celebrating:
When the lights first switched on back in that long-ago December, Lempster schoolchildren marched to the first pole behind a 23-piece band … Residents danced in the streets and partied well into the night … Eighty-one Decembers later, Lempster can claim bragging rights to another momentous first. On December 15, local and state officials joined leaders of the Electric Co-op to celebrate the light-up of its new fiber-optic broadband network.
As we reported then, after New Hampshire Electric Cooperative (NHEC) members voted to authorize the co-op to bring fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) connectivity to its 84,000 members spread out across 115 towns and cities in the Granite State, just weeks later, NHEC connected its first 900 households in Lempster, Clarksville, Colebrook and Stewartstown to its core network, funded with a $6.7 million grant from the state’s Connecting New Hampshire Emergency Broadband Program.
Last month, having been awarded another $6.5 million from the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the newly created NHEC subsidiary NH Broadband began expanding the network into the towns of Sandwich and Acworth, which will bring fiber Internet service to 1,500 homes and businesses by early 2022. The service will be available to both NHEC members and those who get their electric service from a different provider.
“Providing high-speed Internet access to the residents and businesses of Sandwich and Acworth are the next steps towards NHEC’s goal of ensuring that all our members have access to the reliable broadband they need,” Jeff Morrill, chair of the Co-op’s board of directors, told The Laconia Daily Sun. “The Co-op is moving quickly to expand our existing networks and take advantage of emerging funding opportunities.”
Meanwhile, as NHEC eyes further expansion, existing subscribers are already enjoying faster speeds and attractive pricing options as compared to the slow DSL service most residents had been relying on. When the service was first offered, the lowest service option was a symmetrical 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) connection for $50 a month. Last week, however, NHEC announced it was upgrading every subscriber on that service plan to a new symmetrical 100 Mbps service at no extra cost. Current subscribers now have a choice of either the symmetrical 100 Mbps service for $50/month or a symmetrical gig connection for $90/month.
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Sandwich is an extremely rural, mountainous, tree-covered, 100-square-mile town about an hour north of the state capital of Concord and two hours north of Boston. In an interview on a recent episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Sandwich Broadband Advisory Committee member Julie Dolan explained why NH Broadband was a godsend.
“We are on the shores of a lake, Squam Lake, which is famous for its use in the movie ‘On Golden Pond’ back in the 80s. It’s a beautiful, but very rural town. Years ago, about 30 years ago, a cable company wanted to come to town and string cable, but they wanted to only go to the very town center, which was more densely populated. They didn't want to go to the outlying more rural areas. The town fathers said, ‘No. If you're not going to cover the whole town, we don't want you here.’" The cable provider’s answer? They didn’t come to town, leaving residents with DSL-only Internet access.
Dolan recalled how she and other community broadband advocates went to NHEC to “plead, beg for any type of help they could give us.” With the help of fellow Broadband Advisory Committee member Richard Knox, they collected 845 signatures for a petition to help persuade the initially reluctant co-op to change its bylaws in a way that would allow the co-op to build and operate a broadband network.
The Way Forward
Thanks to those efforts and the demand for high-speed Internet service among its members, the co-op is now fully on-board, promising to move “quickly to develop and finalize our plans for network expansion . . . to reach all our members who want service.”
Moving forward, according to the NH Broadband website, upcoming expansion plans and the community roadmap depends on four main factors:
- Availability of state and federal grants
- Member interest expressed through the NH Broadband website
- Areas with a higher density of unserved and underserved members
- Engineering and construction considerations that achieve the fastest, most cost-effective buildout
With an estimated cost of about $83 million to build out the entire network, NHEC plans to use a combination of revenue from new subscribers, capital loans, and government grants, including money allocated to the state under the American Rescue Plan Act and funds contained in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) the Senate passed recently.
Presidential Seal of Approval
In April, Vice President Kamala Harris visited NHEC’s headquarters in Plymouth, N.H., to learn about the co-op’s efforts and to highlight the Biden Administration’s commitment to funding broadband infrastructure initiatives such as the one underway in New Hampshire.
“In 1939 that pole was built and it’s still there,” Harris said, referring to the co-op’s first electric pole erected in Lempster, N.H. 82 years ago, “and why we’re here today is because of what you have been doing in this co-op. It’s the same thing that our country decided to do in 1936, saying let’s get electricity to everybody, and rural America should not be left out of that priority . . . This really is an incredible moment in our history. Not unlike what our country did with electricity, we can do with broadband, so let’s get it done.”
Header image: courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Inline image of Stewartstown sign: courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Inline image of NHEC District Map: courtesy of NHEC
Inline image of NH Broadband logo: courtesy of NH Broadband