Cable, wireless firms take on broadband bonding bill

North Country officials late Tuesday packed a Senate hearing on a bill to let towns bond their own wireless or cable network to provide high-speed Internet service.

House Bill 653 lets towns pay off the notes either with user fees or a hike to everyone’s local taxes. Cable and wireless companies called the bill unfair competition and warned the public investment might backfire if the technology becomes outdated.

The Senate Energy and Economic Development Committee endorsed the bill on a 2-1 vote after it passed the House, 221-118. Gov. John Lynch gave it a boost Wednesday by calling for public/private partnerships to bring wireless or broadband to every community. He said it’s unacceptable for a private carrier to avoid serving a town, but oppose letting it build its own system.

Sen. Bob Boyce, R-Alton, recalled financial troubles at Gunstock Ski Area that forced Belknap County residents to retire a bond of nearly $10 million for snowmaking equipment in the 1980s. The county-owned resort defaulted on its payments, he said, and the same could happen to a town Internet system.

Prime sponsor Rep. Roy Maxfield, R-Loudon, said his bill would leave any bond decision up to local taxpayers. He assumed companies would compete to use a town’s network if built.

Jeremy Katz of SegTEL, an Internet cable firm, said new technology for delivering Internet service, such as satellites, might be several years away, but the bill lets a town bond for up to 30 years.

“My company has invested millions in fiber,” he said. “It could all be trumped overnight if a competitor can get into a town free and not pay taxes. That could knock us out of business.”

Sen. Peter Burling, D-Cornish, asked why the private sector doesn’t reach all customers.

“It’s not economical to serve three houses on the back of a mountain,” Katz said. “But this market is moving so fast. It’s scary to consider what’s coming next.”

The legislation requires officials to give the private sector a crack at building any network before a town proceeds on its own.

The bill remained in a House committee for a year after opposition from carriers like Verizon and the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association. Julia Griffin, the Hanover town manager, sent North Country selectmen and school board members an e-mail this month urging them to outgun Verizon and its allies at the hearing.

“The only way we stand a chance on this bill is if large numbers of frustrated folks come out to talk about the lack of high speed Internet service in rural New Hampshire,” she wrote.

Verizon lobbyist Erle Pierce suggested an amendment to let only the 33 towns with no service at all build their own infrastructure. That would leave out Hanover, where 75 percent of residents have high speed service. – CHRIS DORNIN/GOLDEN DOME NEWS

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