Opinion: Opposition to local broadband projects is anti-competitive
Legacy internet providers are preventing expansion of broadband in areas that sorely need it
Here in Grafton County, we can all agree on two things: We live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world and our internet service could be better.
A lot of hard work, political capital and local and federal funding has been committed to improving the latter, resulting in the launch of broadband service in Bristol this past fall. The group that came together to improve internet service in Bristol is now working with other communities to expand broadband throughout Grafton County. This service is long-overdue and much needed if the region is to reap the benefits of our digital economy.
Unfortunately, these efforts are now being challenged by the same internet service providers that refused to provide adequate service to our communities in the first place.
Grafton County recently applied for a National Telecommunications and Information Administration Broadband Infrastructure Program grant, which would fund building the middle mile fiber network needed for high-speed internet service in more towns. The network would be open to qualified ISPs, which would compete for customers and likely result in cheaper, faster and better quality service.
Legacy ISPs in our region, which have traditionally offered spotty or slow service, have objected to our grant, claiming the county already has adequate broadband service. This grant funding, they challenge, would be used to duplicate existing services.
The objections are based upon Federal Communication Commission data that most industry experts agree is flawed. The data uses “census blocks,” or geographic regions used by the Census Bureau and other federal agencies, to calculate which areas are being served by broadband. Even if there’s only one household with access to broadband, the entire block is considered served. It’s data that can be misleading, showing on paper there are wide areas that are covered by an ISP, when on the ground there is limited or no broadband.
Out of the 4,000 census blocks in Graton County, legacy ISPs are contesting 3,000, putting the work on county and local officials to gather the data to contest these challenges. Through crowdsourcing, surveys and speed tests, we found that most homes are not getting the speeds that ISPs claim. In fact, these internet speeds are far below the FCC’s definition of broadband service.
Unfortunately, we’ve learned that ISPs have made these objections in bad faith elsewhere, including neighboring Maine, where a recent grant applicant found 90 percent of ISP challenges were quickly disproven. Threatened by a more competitive broadband market, ISPs are bogging down the federal grant process with paperwork. On the state level, they oppose legislation that would allow municipalities to issue bonds for broadband improvements. Blocking the financial means for towns to install adequate broadband themselves means we must wait longer for vital broadband service.
We urge federal reform that will level the playing field and take the burden of proving internet speeds off grant applicants like us. One solution is to make grants to build fiber over existing DSL free from challenges, since DSL does not deliver adequate broadband in rural areas today. Another fix would be to change the definition of adequate broadband from 25/3 Mbps to 100/20 Mbps, ensuring customers get truly high-speed broadband.
These rules are currently up for debate before the NTIA. We call upon the New Hampshire’s congressional delegation to let the NTIA know that the monopoly telcos’ protections should be eliminated to ensure competition for projects like the one in Grafton County. You can help, too, by also urging our delegation to take this step to ensure Grafton County gets the high-speed broadband it needs for the future.
Nicholas Coates is town administrator of Bristol.