October 22, 2020REGION — Late last week, Sen. Maggie Hassan hosted a virtual roundtable with town officials and internet providers from across the state. The goal of the 40-minute session was to discuss broadband funding extensions. New Hampshire received $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding in March to support the state's response to COVID-19. A portion of that amount was earmarked to fund broadband infrastructure projects.
Unfortunately, many of the bids were not approved because the projects needed to be shovel-ready at the time of application and completed by Dec 15. Earlier this year, Hassan introduced bipartisan legislation alongside Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley from Iowa to extend the deadline by one year so that many of New Hampshire's under-served rural communities could get the necessary improvements.
Hassan's virtual roundtable included Nicholas Coates, Bristol Town Administrator; Rob Koester, Senior Vice President of Consumer Product Management at Consolidated Communications; Carole Monroe, CEO of ValleyNet and Chris Rand, Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer at Granite State Communications.
"We've all talked about the importance of broadband and we've talked about the gaps in access to broadband that we have in New Hampshire, but it has never been as clear as it is now that broadband is not a luxury. It is an absolute necessity," stated Hassan.
The Senator continued, " We know we need to go about broadband infrastructure in the areas where it has either been non-existent or really hard for people to access for whatever reason. We need to make sure that not only do we have the infrastructure but that people can actually afford a broadband connection, regardless of where they live."
Hassan also said there was a push in Congress for four billion dollars in additional funding nationwide to ensure that all K-12 students would have access to adequate connectivity during the pandemic. She also said she's pushing the Veteran's Administration to strengthen veteran access to telehealth services.
Carol Monroe of ValleyNet said that while her organization had not received any CARES Act funding, they worked with Carroll County on broadband planning and development. She also said the current broadband legislation had three problems.
"The deadline is one of the problems. The second is that it requires you not to have a contract to get the work done. If you already had an agreement or contract in place, you were disqualified," stated Monroe.
The third problem with broadband funding was what Monroe called a punitive approach to get the work done. Funding qualifications required that only 10% of project costs would be covered at the start date, and the remaining 90% of grants funds would be provided upon project completion. She said several counties didn't submit proposals because they didn't think they could complete the work by the Dec. 15 deadline.
Hassan asked Rob Koester of Consolidated Communications if the CARES Act funding had helped his company expand New Hampshire connectivity.
Koester said, "I think it helped quite a bit. The time limiter was the biggest deal for us. We didn't have too much issue with the rest of the process. Once we understood where it was going, it was fairly cookie-cutter for us."
Koester continued, "The time limiter was absolutely number one from our perspective. We can ramp construction resources very quickly if needed. Our bigger time constraint was equipment and electronics, not only with COVID but with other industry factors."
According to Koester, some of the electronics required to expand broadband connectivity take a lengthy time to construct.
He said, "A million feet of fiber is not sitting on a shelf somewhere. It has to be physically manufactured and shipped. Once the state settled on the Dec 15 deadline, it was about what we could get done within that time frame."
Both Monroe and Koester said they would like to see the RFP put out again if the deadline was successfully extended.
Koester said, "Our list of potential opportunities was much longer than what we could get done within the deadline."
Hassan closed the meeting by saying, "This is a bipartisan issue with bipartisan priorities. Not only is it necessary for our capacity as families, businesses and people to manage our way through the pandemic, but there are also real opportunities here. If we do this right and in a way that makes sense for our communities, it opens up enormous possibilities economically for both workforce development and the attraction of people who want to live in our state."