Utilities Watch: Multi-state broadband system eyed for North Country
According to a recent Associated Press report on rural broadband and regional economic development efforts in northern New England, economic development officials are concerned that rural areas without broadband Internet access are being left behind as governments and companies across northern New England do more business on line. According to recent Federal Communications Commission statistics, New Hampshire had a total of 16 providers of high-speed lines as of June 30, 2004 and a total of 168,652 high-speed lines. By comparison, Maine had 14 providers and 124,191 lines, while Vermont had 11 providers and 56,033 lines. Nancy Berliner, executive director of the New Hampshire Rural Development Council, was quoted as saying: “If we want to position the North Country to be economically competitive, we need to create at a minimum what’s called a backbone system.” Such systems usually include ultra-high speed cabling and specialized computers called routers. A committee led by the council is supposed to unveil a telecommunications master plan this month to address rural broadband needs this month. The AP report said that a draft of the New Hampshire plan proposes linking the state’s future broadband network to Maine, Vermont and Canada from Colebrook. Additional links would run through Conway to Maine, and Orford to Vermont. In Vermont, a project is under way to design and build an $8.7 million fiber-optic network across six rural northern counties. Vermont’s fiber-optic “ring,” named North-Link, will connect to New York, New Hampshire and Canada near Montreal. Construction reportedly will begin this summer and take three years. Staple northern Vermont industries, including agriculture and timber-dependent businesses, are reported to be declining while technology-dependent businesses, like health-care companies, are growing. It’s estimated that information services are nearly 17 percent of northern Vermont’s economy. Early phases of the project could generate more than 500 new jobs and help the state keep another 2,000. Maine, on the other hand, already has a statewide fiber-optic network that reaches all libraries and schools. Although reliable statistics on the level and quality of broadband Internet access in the region are scarce, there seems to be little doubt that access needs to be improved. Broadband growth has largely been piecemeal in New Hampshire’s rural North Country, where businesses and individual entrepreneurs often have independently established isolated high-speed Internet links, sometimes with government loans or grants. U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine is working to establish an economic development commission that would include Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. Co-sponsors include Rep. Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican, and Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent.