Bill would allow municipalities to bond for broadband

After several attempts, the concept has been approved by the Legislature

Awaiting Gov. Chris Sununu’s signature is Senate Bill 170, which would allow municipalities to issue bonds to build broadband infrastructure in unserved areas as defined by the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC currently defines broadband, or high-speed internet access, as 25 megabits (Mbps) per second downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. With the definition of “unserved” tied to the FCC’s definition of broadband, municipalities will also have the opportunity to bond should the FCC revise its definition to higher speeds in the future.

Keene, Peterborough, Harrisville, Dublin and Chesterfield are among the municipalities that have planning commissions evaluating options to bring residents and businesses up to the FCC’s definition of high-speed internet, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene.

“We’ve described this as our highway project,” said Kahn. “This is going to help the small startup, in-home kinds of businesses that can be globally competitive.”

Similar bills over the past several years never made it through the Legislature and were met with opposition from industry. This time, the term “underserved” was removed so as to avoid rebuilding where there were existing networks.

“The reason it’s working this time is because it’s a collaborative effort by all stakeholders to create something that will actually work for the municipalities, the providers, the residents and the businesses,” said Ellen Scarponi, senior director of government affairs and economic development for Consolidated Communications. “In the past, it was a bill that was confusing as to whether a municipality had to own the assets they bonded for. There was confusion about who would run a network like that.”

Municipalities have the option of owning the network and collecting provider access fees to maintain it or partnering with a provider. 

“If a municipality partners with a private provider, then all of the risk, all of the capital buildout, the continuing costs of upgrading the infrastructure rests on the company and not the public dollars,” said Tim Wilkerson, vice president and general counsel for the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association Inc., a trade group that represents Comcast, Atlantic Broadband and Charter Communications.

“This public-private partnership allows us, through these local communities’ dollars, to bridge that gap of funding for the original buildout. To deploy that kind of capital in the initial buildout, it’s hard to get that return on investment to attract any provider.” 

The point of the legislation, said Kahn, “is if we wait for state and federal government funding, we won’t make progress in rural communities. This is a tool we need to put in our tool box to enable municipalities to exercise some local control and work with existing providers to minimize the operating costs.” 

Categories: Government, Technology