A missed opportunity to boost broadband

House’s rejection of municipal bonding authority hurts economic development

On Feb. 2, the NH House rejected by a vote of 193-168 HB 191, which was introduced by a bipartisan group of legislators looking to give New Hampshire communities the ability to bond internet service improvements.

Before the vote, a contingent of business owners, elected officials and the NH Municipal Association (which represents more than 200 communities) testified in favor of the bill. The supporters saw the bill as a tool to improve economic competitiveness by providing an opportunity to negotiate with internet service providers (ISPs) to gain access for more users.

However, the ISPs appeared at the legislative hearing to oppose the bill, as they have done in the past on similar legislation. For years, the ISPs have expressed strong opposition to giving communities the ability to bond internet projects because they believe municipalities wish to compete against them. 

No supporter of the bonding authority testified that they were interested in seeing a municipality becoming the provider of broadband service. The supporters of HB 191 saw the legislation as an opportunity for the ISPs to work hand-in-hand with communities to improve service and to form public-private partnerships designed to help pay for the cost of new or improved service. 

However, the representative from FairPoint said, it’s “not a service issue but an availability issue.” Whether the service is poor or unavailable, what is the difference?

In a letter to me concerning my support of the request of my constituents to sponsor HB 191, the FairPoint representative told me that she hopes I “will promote [my] town versus making it sound unattractive to those who want to live and work there.” 

According to the Peterborough Economic Development Authority, “In Peterborough, 40 percent of homes fail to meet the federal definition of broadband access. In Harrisville and Greenfield, almost no homes have broadband. This lowers property values and keeps young people from moving in. Our businesses lack workforce.”

It has been said that universal high-speed broadband is an essential element of a thriving New Hampshire economy and quality of life. How long will it be before every New Hampshire resident, business and organization have access to reliable and affordable broadband? 

The ISPs are promising that they can solve the service and availability issues on their own. This has been an ongoing promise for more than a decade. In my opinion, ISPs such as FairPoint cannot be allowed to continue putting up roadblocks to improve the broadband infrastructure of New Hampshire.

Perhaps it may be time for the Legislature to explore new options, such as the oversight of ISPs by the Pubic Utilities Commission. 

Democrat Peter R. Leishman is state representative from Peterborough who serves on the House Finance Committee. 

Categories: Opinion