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Joyce Endee

Grafton County broadband project requires municipal involvement

September 16, 2021
HAVERHILL — In the next phase of county-wide broadband development, municipalities will need to begin planning individual community build-outs. The sooner they start, the better said attorney Shawn Tanguay from Drummond Woodsum, who serves as counsel for the Grafton County Broadband project.

During a public work session held in Haverhill last week, Tanguay outlined the legislative and financial challenges that lie ahead. According to the state municipal finance act, RSA 33, municipalities can bond and finance broadband projects.

However, the funds must be connected to under-served areas within each community. Each community must also issue a request for information to all broadband providers serving the region. The process is very similar to the Grafton County Broadband Committee's work earlier this year to plan for a backbone network slated to span more than 350 miles in Grafton County.

Areas that have less than the rates of transmission defined by the Federal Communications Commission as a wire-line advanced telecommunication system as defined by section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 are considered under-served, noted Tanguay. While the Telecommunications Act of 1996 stated that all Americans deserve reasonable and sufficient broadband service, it failed to clearly define what was considered reasonable.

Since 1996, the FCC has issued annual reports that indicate what percentage of each county has adequate coverage. According to the FCC reports, 92.9 percent of Grafton County meets the FCC standards. As a result, municipalities that want to secure bonding for broadband projects can only address the needs of approximately 7 percent of the population.

Tanguay noted that the telecom industry has a robust lobbying arm that ensures unrealistic restrictions and prevents communities from bonding such projects.

"While we have the ability to bond, the problem is that we really can't bond. To overcome that standard is almost impossible, at least in Grafton County. Other counties have 80% numbers, so you'll get more broadband access and financing in those counties. Unfortunately, with Grafton, you're almost at 93%. So that's not great news," said Tanguay.

However, recent legislation was established to allow communities to create what is called "Communication Districts." Utilizing RSA 53, the Inter-Municipal Agreement Statute, legislators have allowed municipalities to work together to create such districts and aim for broadband bonding success.

"First, you have to get two or more municipalities to agree to be part of a district; then you have to present the issue to your legislative body. Once you overcome that hurdle, then you have to formulate a committee among the municipalities," explained Tanguay.

That committee is then charged with deciding whether or not the communities need better communications. It's also tasked with figuring out what the agreement will be in formulating a district. Once that agreement has been drafted and approved by the attorney general's office, it must then go before the legislative body once again for the approval and creation of the district.

"Needless to say, it's a lengthy process, and it's going to take a minimum of two years to create a communications district. So realistically speaking, you could go out to three to four years to create a district, which isn't great news if you're looking to establish high-speed broadband in the near term," stated the attorney.

Tanguay continued, "Quite frankly, you're going to need grant funding to make this happen, as well as possibly an appropriation from the municipality. The good news is that our federal delegation has said that help is coming in terms of grant money."

Congress is currently debating the infrastructure bill, which contains substantial funding dedicated to broadband dissemination. Tanguay suggested that town officials begin communicating with one another sooner rather than later about forming communications districts. He also encouraged direct communication with the Northern Community Investment Corporation in Saint Johnsbury, Vt.

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