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Grant-funded broadband buildout moving forward


November 04, 2009
STRATFORD — A small hilltop plateau, upslope from town moderator Steve LaFrance's house in Stratford Bog, has been cleared and a gravel driveway and an electric power pole put in by Mike Beattie of Lancaster. Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH) will connect its electric line to the new on-site stub pole, and the needed electronics have already been installed.

Aerial Site Communications (ASC) of Gorham, the company that installed the cellular tower atop Mount Orne in Lancaster will soon install an 88-foot pole on which a fixed wireless antenna will be mounted, said Wireless LINC project manager Tom Joyce of Northern Community Investment Corporation (NCIC) of St. Johnsbury.

"This will 'see' the Fay Farm in Maidstone," explained Mr. Joyce, who spent about three hours on Monday, Oct. 26, acting as a tour guide to current broadband installation efforts.

"The broadband project is a community effort, and NCIC has signed long-term licenses with landowners, for which they are not compensated, other than possibly receiving the use of high-speed Internet equipment at no cost."

Pieces of a 50-foot fiberglass pole lie on the ground at the log landing on the west side of Route 102 across from the Fay family's signature green-and-white fabric-covered barn. The broadband equipment mounted on the pole will "see" the wireless equipment on the roof of the Stratford School that serves the new community room and also the town library and town offices.

"Locating sites and installing equipment is like working on a giant puzzle," Mr. Joyce said. "There are several layers that must be gotten through, such as state and local permitting that sometimes includes ordinances or bylaws primarily directed at cell towers and restrictions on the Connecticut River flood plain zone."

Clear title must also be established before federal grant funds can be expended.

Redundancy and price must also be factored in, Mr. Joyce explained. Signals come to Mount Orne via Lyndon (Vt.) State College to Burke Mountain. Another source is a new tower on Mt. Hereford in East Hereford, Quebec, Canada, erected on land owned by the Tillotson Corporation that is linked to Montreal by 98 miles of fiber.

Broadband costs are lower north of the border. Broadband will come south from Mount Hereford via Columbia using an 11-Gigahertz microwave licensed link to a 125-foot-tall tower with its own antenna array that will be erected on Spencer Hill Road in Bloomfield which will have its own 11-Gigahertz FCC-licensed link.

The Bloomfield site, in turn, can 'see' Groveton then Mount Orne, with each leg to be licensed," Mr. Joyce explained.

A broadband initiative to tie universities together will also include cross the border linking Plymouth State University to Manchester.

Mt. Hereford will also link Colebrook to Dixville to Pittsburg and Errol to Dummer to Cates Hill in Berlin to Pine Mountain in Gorham to Jefferson. The broadband project is being designed to cover New Hampshire's three northern counties and Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, with as much redundancy as possible, Mr. Joyce said.

Local end users, many of whom are lacking any Internet access or only slow dial-up service, will benefit greatly, he explained. The Fay Farm, for example, must now burn a disc with its required milk test results and then drive it to a location from which it can be sent to Vermont regulators, Mr. Joyce said. Campground owners in Stratford look forward to being able to put up and then regularly update websites that will allow potential customers learn what amenities and prices they offer.

A community room has just been completed at the Stratford School, and on school days students are being taught by information technology (IT) teacher Steve Hoyt to use the 10 laptops and 10 Central Processing Units (CPUs) on hand. An electronic smart board and video-conferencing equipment will not only allow students to use cutting-edge technologies but also to access distance-learning classes. Stratford teachers can also be tapped to teach beyond the local brick-and-mortar walls.

Outside doors with an airlock entrance are designed to allow townspeople to come into the room in non-school hours to learn to use the equipment and potentially to take classes that can give them an economic boost.

Gerry Pons of Whitefield has served as the on-site project manager, and Scott Rappold of Jay, Vt., the general contractor.

Although now served by a T-1 line, soon the both 5.8-gigahertz (GHz) point-to-point antenna and an Omni-antenna will be "lighted up," Mr. Joyce explained. "The Omni on top of the school will broadcast 900 Megahertz frequency and allow businesses and homes within range to connect, provided there is a compatible receiver (CPE) located at the location," he said.

Community members will also be able to use computers at the town hall and library.

A $578,150 USDA Rural Development grant was secured for this project, which includes technical training assistance.

Already, Mr. Hoyt said, Stratford School students are enrolled in Project Running Start through White Mountains Community College in Berlin, earning college credits in an IT course. Eighth-grade students are enrolled in a course aligned with required state standards and are learning desktop publishing skills to produce the school's yearbook. Students in an engineering class have built a robot entered in statewide competition, and other students are producing gaming software. A newly purchased color plotter allows students to produce banners.

"We've had to resolve multiple issues to get this far," Mr. Joyce said. There are only about 50 to 60 end users — "pioneers" — who actually now get high-speed Internet access through NCIC's efforts. "It's all taken longer than we first expected, but we've had to solve lots of problems and search out the right solutions since we first started in 2006," he pointed out.

Equipment has been tested, and a lot of decisions made based on the experience of the "pioneers." The equipment that will be placed at end-users houses, for example, will be rented at subsidized below-market prices so that NCIC will retain ownership, enabling it to replace obsolete parts or equipment. "Obsolescence can occur in 18 to 36 months," the project manager pointed out.

"We are primarily using interior antenna systems although exterior antennas can be installed in some situations where signal propagation can be shared with other users," Mr. Joyce explained.

The grant-driven approach to bringing high-speed affordable Internet access to low-population areas in the six North Country and Northeast Kingdom counties was determined when an informed guesstimate was made that it would cost $438 million to install costly fiber lines to serve 120,000 locations with a population of only 240,000 people, Mr. Joyce said.

"Private industry just couldn't justify such an expense; there just wouldn't be the necessary return on investment (ROI)," he said.

As NCIC president and CEO Jon Freeman acknowledged in the nonprofit organization's 2009 annual report: "Thanks to the investments by banks and businesses across the region, the incredible efforts and N. H. Senators Judd Gregg and John Sununu and Vt. Sen. Patrick Leahy, USDA Rural Development, SBA, HUD EDI, the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund, the N. H. Community Development Finance Authority, the N. H. Department of Resources and Economic Development, the Vermont Broadband Council and the Vermont Telecom Authority, this project development is well underway." He also credits working together with the Littleton Industrial Development Corporation (LIDC). "Through this year the team established the network components, operating software, construction techniques, vendor relationships, and refined the implementation schedule," CEO Freeman noted.

Mr. Joyce also gives credit to executive director Peter Riviere of the Coös Economic Development Corporation (CEDC) who often serves as an effective facilitator and convener.

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