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hb 286 2013
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A recent in-depth article from the Keene Sentinel updates us on the status of New Hampshire's HB 286, which would expand bonding authority for local governments. New Hampshire law currently restricts bonding authority for Internet infrastructure to towns with no access to the Internet, but nearly all communities have at least some slow broadband access in a few pockets of town. We have been tracking this bill, most recently four months ago just before it overwhelmingly passed the house. Unfortunately, the bill does not give many options to local governments. It settles to only allow bonding when the local government is not providing retail services, a business model that has only worked well when local governments have expanded very slowly. That said, New Hampshire already has a promising open access network called FastRoads that would allow nearby towns to connect and access the four service providers already using it. Connecting to an already-operating open access network is a much better prospect than having to start one from scratch, particularly in areas with low population density. Nonetheless, we continue to find it counter-productive for state legislatures to limit how local governments can invest in essential infrastructure. We know of no good policy reason for doing so - these limitations are a result of the lobbying power of a few cable and telephone companies that want to preserve scarcity to ensure high profit margins. Kaitlin Mulhere's article, "Broadband access could be improved in NH through new bill," demonstrates the need for better networks in the granite state and notes that Fast Roads is starting to meet those needs in the areas it operates.
We caught up with Carole Monroe from New Hampshire FastRoads to get an update on what is happening in the legislature this sesssion. We reported last spring on HB 286, intended to allow local communities more decision making power. The bill did not advance last session, but new language may breath new hope into the proposal.
If the bill passes, it will remove restrictions that prevent local governments from bonding to finance broadband infrastructure. This and similar bills have been introduced in the past, but large incumbent providers always seem to stop them.
Monroe tells us that this session the bill clarifies the definition of "open access network." The bill also changes language regarding "unserved and underserved" areas. Now the bill requires municipalities to include areas without "adequate" broadband if they choose to finance through bonds. "Adequate" in the bill language relies on the FCC definition of broadband as it changes over time, currently 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. The change does not restrict building in all areas as long as some areas without "adequate" coverage are included.
The new language also clarifies that municipal networks built only for government purposes do not have to be part of the open access model. Past versions of the bill questioned application of the open access model to municipal I-Nets.
While some of the language of the bill has changed, the fundamental goals remain the same. Local communities need to make the decision to bond. In order to do so, state barriers must be removed. Current state law only allows bonding for broadband infrastructure under strict criteria which only apply in a fraction of the state.
Monroe reiterates that the bill intention is also to create a more competitive environment. She noted that the area is already benefitting from a competitive spirit. Broadband pricing proposals to community anchor institutions show significantly lower rates per Mbps. Service level agreements are more favorable to community anchor institutions since the creation of FastRoads.
New Hamsphire FastRoads is making significant strides in connecting residents, businesses, and community anchor institutions in the southwestern section of the state. FastRoads is funded by a combination of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants, private donations, and funds from local communities.
While the network is certainly making progress and scheduled for completion this summer, it has been constrained by state laws that limit the use of bonding. As a result, many local communities that would like to benefit from connections with Fast Roads will not able to take advantage of its presence in this largely rural area of the state.
We recently spoke with Carole Monroe, Executive Director of New Hampshire Fast Roads, in a Broadband Bits podcast interview. She told us about a bill in the New Hampshire General Court this year that would remove restrictions that limit how local governments can finance network investments.
In past years, New Hampshire legislators took up several bills that would remove the restriction preventing local communities from using bonds to finance broadband infrastructure. Every year, lobbyists from large ISPs manage to push those bills into oblivion. This year, HB 286 seeks to strike the restrictive language.
The bill is getting attention from local media, the New Hampshire SentinelSource. An editorial, published soon after the bill was introduced summarizes the problem:
In areas where companies determine that investing in expansion isn’t worthwhile, municipalities often find their hands tied because state law does not allow communities to take out municipal bonds for broadband access if there’s a private company operating in the community. That means if a town has even a small pocket of coverage by a telecommunication company, it can’t get funding to pay for expansion to the rest of its residents and businesses.