Caswell: Broadband rollout is a critical next step in NH’s commercial expansion

Rural broadband internet for agriculture

One of the lessons we’ve all learned during the pandemic is how critical internet access has become. Not only were people working from home, but they were registering their cars, ordering takeout, watching the latest movies, visiting their doctors, and their kids doing their homework, all online.

Many people have portrayed the provision of high-speed Internet access as a modern-day version of America’s 1930’s electrification. For this reason, the state’s Economic Recovery and Expansion (ERES) Strategy, released in 2021, has as one of its five strategic goals “Recognising the role of infrastructure in driving the economy”. To achieve this goal, universal broadband access is essential for both businesses and citizens, and the state is doing it fast.

On October 19, the governor and executive council approved a $50 million contract with the NH Electric Cooperative (to roll out high-speed fiber optic broadband to more than 23,200 locations statewide). These are mostly rural locations that currently have slow speeds or no service at all.

How fast is high speed? For this program we need at least 100 Mbit/s upload and download for the new service. With the planned upgrades, NHEC offers up to 20 times the speeds. The reason for this is simple. We’re building this network for now and for the future, and these speeds meet the needs of most home and business users.

At the Ministry of Economy As we reviewed all of the applications for this $50 million program, we realized two things.

On the one hand there are Internet providers who want to make this future-proof broadband service available to the state. This was a competitive process, getting the best for New Hampshire at the best price. This approach demonstrated the potential for large-scale broadband deployment in ungoverned and underserved areas. Second, New Hampshire’s competitive approach serves more locations than other states. For comparison, Vermont will spend $90 million to provide access to around 14,000 sites. Other states have different funding approaches that serve their needs. However, New Hampshire’s approach to using its funds for rapid, streamlined expansion is promising.

To continue this success, BEA has opened a second round of funding and committed an additional $40 million to this initiative. We expect that the state will receive more competitive offers and will continue to directly finance our country’s broadband expansion. In addition, BEA will provide tens of millions of dollars in local grants to complete expansion throughout the rest of the state. Additionally, in 2023, the state will release a digital equity plan that will identify gaps — and potential solutions — in areas such as digital literacy, affordability, and access to community services.

Aside from ensuring that broadband is accessible to all individuals, organizations and businesses, BEA and the state are taking aggressive action because we are looking beyond today. A state fully wired to broadband has incredible benefits for energy, healthcare, housing, education and more. That’s why ERES has made it one of its goals. The state’s future businesses and workforce will need such connectivity, and this is especially true for Millennials — and increasingly Gen Z — who will make New Hampshire their home and workforce. However, this will only continue if the state remains committed to ensuring that everyone has fast and reliable internet access.

Taylor Caswell is commissioner of the NH Department of Business and Economic Affairs.