As Grafton County seeks a $26.2 million U.S. Department of Commerce grant to build out high-speed broadband for its residents, towns, businesses, hospitals, first responders and schools, several corporate Internet providers are pushing back.
“They failed to provide many Grafton residents with broadband for years and now mistakenly or deceptively claim they already provide adequate broadband to Grafton,” county administrator Andrew Dorsett said Wednesday.
The big companies are challenging the county’s $26.2 million grant application to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and have contacted the NTIA to say they already provide sufficient service in their census blocks.
But in surveys, county residents say service remains subpar in too many areas.
The county is now responding to NTIA’s recent questions and request for more information about current broadband service and is providing data and numbers that bolster the need for the county-wide broadband project.
Although it’s too early to say if project delays will result from the corporate push-back, Dorsett and Grafton County Broadband Committee Chairman Nicholas Coates said the county is confident any objections can be overcome with the data that the county will provide and that the project will proceed as planned.
“This is kind of standard operating procedure for the big companies to object to this because obviously they have a stake in where they provide service currently and don’t want to see their market share be dispersed,” said Coates. “The position that we’re taking is that we’re trying to remind people that as a middle-mile network, we’re not out to compete with anyone. What we really want to do is facilitate the ability of providers to come into new markets.”
That entails providing more access to people who don’t have service, or, for those who have limited service, providing more affordable options, he said.
“And on the company side, it’s how do we facilitate them getting access to more customers,” said Coates. “The county’s not interested in making a profit on this project. What the county’s interested in is making sure everyone has access to broadband at a reasonable speed.”
Raising objections to NTIA about the need for the county’s broadband effort were Consolidated Communications, Comcast, Atlantic Broadband Finance LLC, and Charter Communications.
The survey responses, previous tests, and current broadband data that the county is providing NTIA will show that the companies’ claim that they already provide sufficient broadband is not accurate, said Dorsett.
For the surveys, there were 29 respondents in Bath, five in Monroe, six in Easton, eight in Lisbon, 11 in Franconia, 13 in Lyman, 19 in Sugar hill, 33 in Landaff, 23 in Bethlehem, 26 in Littleton, and 130 in Haverhill.
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most satisfied, many Bath residents rated service in the 1 to 3 range and complained of slowness.
Most Haverhill respondents put satisfaction in the 1 to 3 range
The other towns have similar survey ratings.
“In our response [to NTIA], we’re just letting them know we’ve had this many survey responses, including these census blocks, and here’s the percentage that we can demonstrate don’t have service or have limited service,” said Dorsett.
In addition to the surveys and other tests, the Federal Communications Commission in September 2020 launched a study through which the Internet provider speed of anyone who employs a free app called TestIT can be recorded.
The FCC has an understanding that the data the objecting companies are using is inaccurate and people are still running the app and collecting data, which is going to NTIA, said Dorsett.
“They can object, but the proof is in the pudding,” said Coates.
And the spreadsheet surveys show that a good number of people either don’t have access or the access they have is poor in regard to speed, he said.
“They’ll do everything they can to make sure their market share isn’t eroded and we’ll probably go back and forth, but in terms of the NTIA we feel very good about where we are, because they’ve sent us this challenge spreadsheet,” said Coates. “We are working on sending a response back, which will be sent back [on Nov. 18]. The encouraging thing to me, and I think to the committee, is we’re still engaging with NTIA. If we weren’t still in the mix and in serious consideration, the NTIA wouldn’t be sending us questions about what we are planning to do. We expect to be hearing back soon on whether or not we get this grant.”
If the NTIA grant comes through, Dorsett said it will be a “game-changer” and change the trajectory of the project.
New Hampshire’s federal delegation has also voiced support for the Grafton County broadband effort.
As for other project funding, Grafton County, which is designing the broadband spine that residents and businesses can connect to, is going to be awarded a $25,000 Community Development Block Grant from the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority.
Matched with some federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 money, it will be used for the project design for all Grafton County towns.
The CDBG money covers 19 communities that meet the low- to moderate-income qualification, and the ARPA money will be used for the remaining counties, said Dorsett.
“The plan is to work with every town in the county, all 39 of them, to come up with high-level designs for each town that will build off of that middle-mile network,” said Coates. “We are encouraging towns to get started and working with the consultant that we have. Because we have grant funds, it’s going to be free of charge for them.”
The county broadband committee will also be applying for U.S Department of Agriculture ReConnect Loan and Grant Program money to help get high-level designs in towns as they reach the finish line.
“The theory is if we get the money to do the middle mile and then we help them come up with designs in their town, then we go out and help them find the money and build it out and we would have a fully built-out network over the next year to two at the very most, in every single town, which would be amazing,” said Coates.
The need for faster broadband has become all the more apparent, he said.
“I don’t need to remind anyone what the pandemic reminded us of, which is we all need to live much of our lives virtually these days and that won’t be going away any time soon,” said Coates. “Really, it’s about how do we retool the county and the infrastructure to allow people to do those things so the residents and the businesses don’t get left behind.”