Here in Grafton County, we all agree on two things: we live in one of the most beautiful areas in the world and our internet service could be better.
A lot of hard work, political capital, and local and federal funding went into improving the latter, culminating in the launch of broadband service in Bristol last 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 essential 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 (ISPs) that refused to provide adequate service to our communities in the first place.
Grafton County recently applied for a National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Broadband Infrastructure Program grant that would fund construction of the fiber optic network needed for high-speed Internet service in more cities. The network would be open to qualified ISPs, which would compete for customers and likely result in cheaper, faster, and better service.
Former ISPs in our area, who traditionally provided spotty or slow service, objected to our subsidy, saying the county already has adequate broadband service. This grant funding, they argue, would be used to duplicate existing services.
The objections are based on Federal Communication Commission data that most industry experts believe is flawed. The data uses “census blocks,” or geographic regions used by the Census Bureau and other federal agencies, to calculate broadband service areas. Even if there is only one household with broadband access, the entire block is considered served. This is data that can be misleading, showing on paper that large areas are covered by an ISP, while on the ground broadband is limited or non-existent.
Of Grafton County’s 4,000 census blocks, former ISPs are challenging 3,000, forcing county and local officials to collate the data to challenge those challenges. Through crowdsourcing, surveys, and speed testing, we’ve found that most homes aren’t getting the speeds advertised by ISPs. In fact, these Internet speeds are well below the FCC’s definition of broadband service.
Unfortunately, we have learned that ISPs have made these objections in bad faith elsewhere, including in neighboring Maine, where a recent grant applicant found that 90% of ISP challenges were quickly rebutted. Threatened by a more competitive broadband market, ISPs are bogging down the federal subsidy process with red tape. At the state level, they oppose legislation that would allow municipalities to issue broadband upgrade bonds. Blocking the financial means for cities to install adequate broadband themselves means we have to wait longer for vital broadband service.
We urge federal reform that will level the playing field and ease the burden of proving internet speed for grant applicants like us. One solution is to provide subsidies to build fiber over existing DSL without any problems, as DSL does not provide adequate broadband in rural areas today. Another solution would be to change the definition of adequate broadband from 25/3 Mbps to a minimum of 100/100 Mbps, thereby guaranteeing customers true broadband.
These rules are currently being debated before the NTIA. We’re asking the New Hampshire congressional delegation to let the NTIA know that protections for monopoly telecom carriers should be eliminated to ensure competition for projects like Grafton County’s. You can also help by also urging our delegation to take this step to ensure that Grafton County gets the high-speed broadband it needs for the future.