Camerino: Broadband internet is the next essential service
A vibrant local and state economy requires an infrastructure that supports economic development
When the Covid-19 pandemic took hold earlier this year, it closed schools and businesses and forced many New Hampshire residents to work from home or participate in remote learning. It’s been inconvenient and frustrating at times, but with a good internet connection it was possible to adapt to this changing world. For tens of thousands of New Hampshire residents without access to broadband internet, however, connecting to the “new normal” has not been easy. In fact, the pandemic has further exposed a digital divide that threatens to leave a substantial number of Granite Staters behind.
New Hampshire Electric Cooperative has long recognized that a vibrant local and state economy requires a broadband infrastructure that supports economic development, improved educational opportunities, and a modern electric grid.
For several years, the co-op has explored options to help our member-owners connect to broadband internet, especially in the more rural parts of our service territory where the need is acute. As a nonprofit cooperative founded in 1939 to bring light and power to un-served areas of the state, NHEC is well positioned to once again meet the needs of our member-owners, this time by ensuring that everyone served by NHEC has access to high speed internet.
To move forward on this goal, we’re asking NHEC members to vote on proposed changes to the rules that govern how the co-op operates. NHEC’s bylaws allow us to provide “other goods and services” to our members, but they don’t provide the flexibility our board of directors needs to take advantage of emerging opportunities, many of which unfold quite quickly, like accessing government funding and forging new business partnerships. In mid-September, NHEC members will have the opportunity to change NHEC’s bylaws to allow the Co-op to explore available options to ensure our members have access to the internet they need.
The NHEC board unanimously recommends approval of the proposed bylaw changes because they believe that NHEC can provide this essential service for our members while safeguarding the viability of our core mission – delivering safe, reliable and affordable energy and energy solutions to our members.
The COVID-19 pandemic and our members’ requests for help have made clear that access to high-speed internet is nearly as important today to rural New Hampshire as electricity was in 1939.
Broadband internet increases property values and is an essential business tool. But in real terms, it can be the difference between a resident in a rural town starting a home business or being forced to move elsewhere for a better internet connection. It means that a 5th-grader in the North Country can get the same educational opportunities as a student in another part of the state where broadband service exists.
The reality is that, over time, families and businesses will be reluctant, and in most cases unwilling, to locate in towns where they don’t have access to high speed internet service. We hope co-op members will support the proposed bylaw changes and help us bridge the digital divide.
We are still in the early days of what will be a multi-year effort to ensure members have access to broadband internet, but what is already clear is that we need to amend the co-op’s bylaws to go down this road. We invite you to keep up on our efforts and all the latest news on our website: nhec.com/broadband.
Steve Camerino is president and CEO of New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, which serves 85,000 homes and businesses in 115 communities.