One way or another, Grafton County, New Hampshire is lining up funding to build a massive new middle-mile network county officials hope will drive broadband competition—and more affordable fiber—into long underserved New Hampshire communities.
Grafton was one of 230 U.S. communities that applied for a National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Broadband Infrastructure Program grant. Grafton’s specific application asked for $26.2 million to help fund the creation of the 353 mile broadband middle mile network they’re calling Grafton County Broadband Now.
Costly Challenge from National Incumbent Providers
Charter Communications filed costly challenges with the NTIA challenging the application, falsely claiming that the county’s proposal was “duplicative” and Charter already provided broadband to the region. Most of the claims were based on older, unreliable data provided to the FCC by Charter dramatically overstating broadband availability.
Grafton County surveys actually indicate the majority of county residents still can’t get access to the FCC’s base definition for broadband, 25 Megabits (Mbps) per second downstream, 3 Megabits per second upstream. Availability data across the county will likely look even worse should the FCC pass a new proposal to boost the definition of broadband to 100 Mbps.
Between Comcast and Charter, incumbent cable giants challenged 3,000 of the 4,000 census blocks covered in the NTIA application, even in areas that didn’t make much sense. Regional leaders previously told us the challenges were an attempt to bog long-needed local broadband improvement efforts down in bureaucracy.
Devil in the Details
Grafton’s grant application was rejected by the NTIA, though officials told the New Hampshire Bulletin they don’t believe local cable company challenges were the reason. They’re guessing (though apparently weren’t clearly told) that the proposal was rejected because their network plan wasn’t detailed enough, something they’re taking steps to address.
With its NTIA funding ambitions scuttled, the county is looking at alternative options, including the use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. Last March, county officials approved the use of $3.8 million in ARPA funds to help fund final engineering for all 39 Grafton towns, cementing the permitting and planning process ahead of a planned November build.
“We’ll know exactly where it’s going to go, how much it’s going to cost, whose permission we need,” Bristol Town Administrator Nik Coates told the outlet. “Everything is just ready to go.”
City officials like Coates are hopeful that a more concrete, finalized plan should open the door to additional funding opportunities down the road.
Individual Grafton towns like Bristol have also managed to secure some funding of their own. Bristol, for example, managed to obtain a $260,000 grant courtesy of the Northern Border Regional Commission (NBRC), a federal-state community development project across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York.
Delayed but Not Deterred
The Grafton County broadband committee is currently working with other towns and cities to find new funding opportunities and navigate the often complicated grant approval process.
The county hopes that the open access middle mile network will help lure more broadband competitors to the state, dislodging the regional monopoly enjoyed by cable giants like Charter. With many open access networks, greater competition often means lower prices, faster service, and improved, more localized customer support.
As Grafton County pushes toward construction of a middle mile network, which can lower the cost of providing last-mile connectivity in the region where middle mile networks operate, the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative (NHEC) is also finalizing plans to expand broadband access to 17,000 of the cooperative’s current electricity customers across 32 Grafton County towns. The effort, also funded in part by ARPA funds, is expected to cost up to $30 million.
As with so many parts of the country, the real creative innovation in telecom continues to come at the hands of a bipartisan array of frustrated locals, cooperatives, utilities, and small businesses, frustrated by decades of market failure.
Inline “Challenge” image courtesy of The Blue Diamond Gallery, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Inline map of Grafton County, NH courtesy of Wikipedia