Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 36 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Carole Monroe regarding the FastRoads network in New Hampshire. Listen to this episode here.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi, there. And welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I’m Lisa Gonzalez.
In Episode 36, Christopher Mitchell interviews Carole Monroe, the Executive Director of New Hampshire FastRoads. Carole tells us about the network, a collaboration between several communities, that’s planning to bring connections to residents and community anchor institutions all over southwestern New Hampshire. Carole and Chris also talk about New Hampshire legislation, introduced this session. House Bill 286, if passed, would remove some of the obstacles facing local communities’ ability to build broadband infrastructure. As can be expected, incumbents are lobbying heavily against the bill. Carole also gives us a tutorial on pole politics, and describes the New Hampshire FastRoads model. Here are Carole and Christopher.
Christopher Mitchell: Today on Community Broadband Bits, we’re talking with Carole Monroe, the Executive Director of New Hampshire FastRoads. Welcome to the show.
Carole Monroe: Thank you.
Chris: We’re excited to learn a little bit more about this project in New England. Can you start by just giving us a sense of where the project centered, and what the community is like?
Carole: We are an organization in western New Hampshire. New Hampshire FastRoads is actually an LLC of Monadnock Economic Development Corporation. And I think that’s pretty important because it says what this is all about, which is economic development to rural areas. We are building a broadband network from north of Hanover, which is in Orford, and all the way down to the Massachusetts line, in Rindge, New Hampshire. It’s a very rural area of the state. When the grant proposal was submitted, there was cable access only in those areas that are more densely populated — I wouldn’t call them urban. Areas like Claremont, or Hanover, Lebanon, Keene, and those immediate areas adjacent to those towns. There’s some DSL available, primarily the older technologies, delivering under 3 Mbps, and less than 768 k[bps] up. That technology was also only available in those same areas. And for many residents, satellite and dial-up were their only option. This is also an area of the state that incubates new businesses. Many of them start at home. And so there are a number of individuals working from their homes, for themselves and for other businesses, that have far from adequate service. There are town halls, and fire departments, and police departments running on a dial-up or a satellite connection. And many of the schools are limited to a DSL connection, or the large expense of T1 lines. It was an area very ripe for change.
Chris: We — a friend of mine and I would drive up to New Hampshire every year for many years, back maybe ten years ago. Do rock climbing in Plymouth and Rumney. It’s a beautiful, beautiful area of the state. We drove around a fair amount to just get a better sense of it. And so I just — great diners. It was terrific being there. And I can only imagine how great it will be when you have great Internet access.
Carole: There are a number of people looking forward to that, particularly in one of our towns that has — where we’re building out to the residents. It has a large summer population. And those residents are looking forward to being there more often during the summer, when they can actually work from there on a regular basis. So it’s pretty exciting.
Chris: So where did this idea actually start, in terms of the FastRoads organization?
Carole: There are two groups working on this side of the state to change broadband in this region. One was — and is — a group called West Central New Hampshire, which is eight towns in the Hanover region. And the other is the Keene Municipal Broadband Committee, in Keene. But it also reached out to the other towns in the Monadnock region. They had been working on this. And I had, as I used to — in my previous life, I was a CIO for one of these educational institutions. And so, we all were working to try and change that landscape here. It was incredibly expensive to have good broadband. And we were losing businesses in this region. And so, we worked on it a long time. But the stars have to align. And so, we had some assistance from the Community Development Finance Authority — prior to the BTOP grants being announced — to do market research, to do a business plan, and to put together a business pro forma. That was really critical to us being ready when those grants were announced, to try and be a part of either round one or round two, for funding purposes. And — you know, so, when I talk to towns that want to change their landscape, I talk about needing to be ready to do that, by having their, you know, sort of, their ducks in a row, having their data in front of them. But — and we’re funded out of round two.
Chris: And can I push in, just briefly? So, if you have like this group in Keene, how did they become aware of others in other communities, or, you know, maybe other towns nearby? How exactly does the message spread that there’s a group that’s trying to solve this issue? We often hear people saying, you know, oh, yeah, I have this problem, but I never know how to connect with other people that also want to solve this problem.
Carole: The Keene group centered — most of the individuals involved in that group were either CIOs or Directors of Technology at the local businesses and educational institutions, community anchor institutions, in the city, who banded together to discuss this and to try and make a change. And there was a predecessor to this group that — to FastRoads — called Monadnock Connect, that was established early in 2000, 2001. And at that time, the focus was on businesses. And we had a — we ended up with a microwave solution, point-to-point solution, for many of the rural businesses in this region. And that sort of morphed this committee into the next stage — of, how do you do this differently, and how can we move it forward.
Chris: It’s interesting. We often hear this sort of answer, which is that it took a lot of years. It took some dogged determination. Because, you know, you may not get the full solution right away. I’m sure it’s disheartening over the time. But over the many years, eventually you have an opportunity, and you are able to secure the funding and the second round of BTOP.
Carole: That’s exactly correct. You have to be persistent.
Chris: [laughs] Yes, indeed. So, what’s the status presently?
Carole: So, our project is funded by the second round of Broadband Technology Opportunity [BTOP] funds. We’re a sub-award under Network New Hampshire Now, the bigger state project. And so, the middle mile on our project is about 90 percent complete. That’s 161 miles. We will own 48 strands of the 144 that’s being constructed on the 161 miles. And then the last mile, which in our case — we’re — we call ourselves the last mile wholesale provider. We’re one of the few projects actually physically connecting to businesses and community anchor institutions and residences. So that last mile, which is 86 miles, most of those miles are in the two residential areas that we’re building out. And that’s about 50 percent complete. But the good news is that we have started, last week, our go-live meetings, to try and light this network in phases. And so there’s certain sections of it that are far more than 50 percent — they’re more like 90 percent complete — that will allow us to do that.
Chris: The project has got its starter funds, and the bulk of its funding, through the BTOP. But it’s — I think you have a much larger project in mind. This isn’t the end of the project, right? So, where can you go from here, and what’s in your way?
Carole: It is true that $5.3 million are BTOP funds. And we have $2.3 million of matched funds. In the state of New Hampshire, none of the match funding has come directly from the state. We have match funds from a consortium of community banks, who have joined together to provide us some loans. We have some loans from the Community Development Finance Authority, the business finance authority from two of the economic development corporations in the state. And a limited amount of vendor matching funds. And so this gives us this construction — this project that gives us — connections to community anchor institutions — 229 at the moment have signed up for a connection. Of — you know, of 293. But we had — you know, we had anticipated 220. So we’re pretty thrilled with 229 at the moment. And so — and then two residential areas. And that’s about 1,350 homes. You can’t do those residential areas without the support of the community anchor institutions, as well. I mean, they balance each other out. And so, as that comes together, our intent is to reinvest back into this network. And every place that we are going, there has been conversation about how, and when, and who will be next, and what neighborhood will be next. We’re working with some of the towns, who might have some private financing, and how they might extend that private financing to do some of this. But it’s starting a real energy around these communities. And many of these small towns now have a broadband committee, trying to work through how we can make it happen in their town too. So it’s pretty exciting.
Chris: It sounds not all that different from just over in Vermont with the EC Fiber network, where they also — each town — has their committees, and they’re trying to figure out what resources they can do to expand it. What are some of the benefits you’re seeing from these connections already? I can only assume that people are thrilled — the ones that already have the ability to start connecting.
Carole: What we’re seeing — and what we have seen from the time that this grant was announced — is, we’re seeing some real concern from the existing providers, the incumbent carriers. And so we’ve seen some prices drop already. Just because they know that this will be out there. And so, I think that’s actually pretty good for this area. I mean, I’ve certainly seen Fairpoint reduce their costs — or, their cost to the customers. And to look for, you know, some long-term contracts. Which — as a CIO, I hadn’t seen long-term contracts in this arena since maybe 1999. But now, they’re out there trying to sell long-term contracts again.
Chris: When you don’t have it — when you don’t have a choice, they want to preserve the opportunity to raise the rates constantly, right?
Carole: That’s right. So, now that they know there’s some competition coming — and we’ve made sure that word is out there on the street — they’re getting pressured by these customers, by the community anchor institutions and businesses to really, you know, show up with their best pricing strategy. And so I think that’s exciting. And then, even in the cable world, they’re fully aware that this could affect their market, and they’re trying desperately to protect it. So we’ve seen some “specials” on the street. You know, not $34.99, but $24.99, for one year. And so on and so forth. All of that seems to be happening. So, those things are happening. But for the anchors, most of the community anchor institutions are — we’re connecting into their facility. They will have fiber in their telecom room, And they will have access to multiple service providers in a competitive environment on our network. But even if they choose not to do that, they immediately have the ability to have — their current carrier is going to have to compete with those carriers, those providers, who will ride on our network. And so they’re already seeing that they’re getting to — you know, those current providers are being very aggressive in their pricing.
Chris: That’s interesting. We’ve seen a number of networks where they do this open access, or wholesale-only access, for residents, that you’re doing. But, often, they’ll be the ones that provide access to the schools and the community anchor institutions. So, you’re, in fact, not even providing service to them. You’re really acting as purely — as a network infrastructure.
Carole: That’s exactly it. And I think, you know, I — I think it works for us. But as soon as we become a service provider, then it — I think you start to lose those service providers who might actually might want to be on the network as well. So, we’re setting up a competitive environment. And I think there are — and there service providers who will take advantage of that. Some who want to hold onto the customer they have today. And, you know, a community anchor institution, or a school district. And some new ones, who are coming into this market and saying we can play without putting in a lot of capital.
Chris: How does the arrangement with the ISPs work, in terms of sharing revenue, and making sure all the costs are paid, and that sort of thing?
Carole: We have — we actually have brought in an operator. We are in the midst of those agreements. And — but that operator operates networks of this type as open access networks. In our neighboring state of Massachusetts, and in Canada, Singapore, across Europe. So it’s an experienced operator. Service providers like that. They like the fact there’s an experienced operator who will be operating this network, managing it, provisioning it. Service-level agreements, acceptable use policies, 24/7 helpdesk, all of those sorts of things, in their NOC. And so, the service providers will sign an agreement with us. And that agreement basically says, you understand this is an open access network, that you are not the only service provider on this network. And then, of course, the liability language, liability insurance, and so on language. And the pricing structure — wholesale pricing structure based on product. And then, they will, indeed, then sign the service agreement — a connecting agreement with our operator, for day-to-day communications and work and service levels. And so, those two agreements will — are being — people are looking at them now and signing them as they go. But it was important for us to have both. We need to continue to have a relationship with those service providers.
We have the ability, on our network, to allow for those service providers to extend our network. So, for an example, if they wanted to build out to a commercial district, or a commercial park, they could do that. And we have a model for a shared revenue process in that, or just a lit service back to our colocation facility. Depends on whether they build out open access or not. But …
Chris: The Urbana-Champaign BTOP project one of the other few last-mile projects, has a provision where others can expand the network, or extend the network. But they ARE expected to preserve it as open access. So you — it seems like you have a little more leeway for service providers.
Carole: Well, we have both. The operator that we are partnering with has interest in expanding the network, too. And when you expand the network through the use of town funds, or the town’s ability to sort of gather their resources together, then that becomes an extension as open access. But there are some service providers who want to provide specifically to an industry or a park or a multi-tenant building along those lines, and if they have indeed paid for that extension and for that construction off the network to that location, then those become their customers. And so we have a real — you know, they can indeed — and they can then either — we’ll provision that to the node. We’ll bring the fiber to the node, and then they’ll provision it going forward.
Chris: You mentioned that towns can use, to some extent, their ability to finance some of these expansions. I understand that there’s some limitations in the New Hampshire law, and there’s a bill that may address some of those. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Carole: I can. It’s House Bill 286. And I actually was up there testifying on Tuesday. So, it’s — there’s a bonding bill before the House that is — that currently exists today — and it does allow for bonding for broadband. But there are provisions in that bill that indicate you can’t bond for broadband if, in fact, your town or municipality has any service — at all. So it allows you to bond for the unserved areas only. And if you’re not unserved, then you’re not allowed to bond. And so, the language isn’t particularly clear. It just — the way it’s written, most towns read the language — and most attorneys — that say, you know, you have a Comcast line down the center of town, that precludes you from bonding for anything, even though you have a vastly rural area that is unserved. So, we’re asking the state to remove the barriers in that bill, to let the towns make those decisions locally. Very few towns, probably, will want to do that. But why prevent them from making that decision? And it’s being lobbied heavily by the incumbent carriers, not to remove that language. As I worked on this project, you can’t get to those rural areas unless you run through the center of town. There’s just no pole access or rights-of-way to get there. And so, in essence, they added that language to prevent towns from doing that. And that — we’re asking them to remove it.
One of the things that keeps coming up in those hearings is — by incumbents — is that we’re “overbuilding.”
Carole: And I think to myself, OK, if I’m running fiber — if FastRoads is running fiber throughout this community, even on your poles, on which you have copper — and the cable company has coax — how is that an overbuild?
Chris: Right. You can’t put that interstate here. We already have a dirt road.
Carole: Right. That’s exactly it.
Carole: And so — but trying to get that message through to the representatives is — it’s very difficult. But the lob- — you know, New Hampshire FastRoads can’t afford a lobbyist in Concord. This is just New Hampshire.
Carole: I can’t imagine if it’s at the national level. But, you know, you have Comcast, Time Warner, and Fairpoint who have lobbyists — full-time lobbyists — at the table. And then you have the New Hampshire Telecom Association, who only the ILECs belong to. And then you have the New England Cable Association, also with lobbyists at the table. And they’re there every day.
Carole: And so, it’s really hard to make an impression on the representatives.
Chris: Right. We’ve actually — we’ve seen this for a number of years. And each time, for at least the past two, I want to say, the incumbent lobbyists have, unfortunately, been able to defeat it. I’m very hopeful that people will pay greater attention this year and put some pressure on elected officials to stop getting in the way. Because, as you say, these decisions need to be made by the communities. There’s so many different factors that are just unique to each community that you can’t have a one-size-fits-all policy.
Carole: And that’s right. And the other is that — FastRoads has a great territory. But the state itself is building out with those federal funds. It’s about 750 miles of broadband — fiber broadband — across the state. Redundant loops. All the way into the north country, where there’s very seldom any access at all. And why not have this tool in the toolbox, for those towns that might want to build off that vast infrastructure, or middle-mile, to get broadband — big broadband — to their towns? Why prevent it? And so, those, you know, are sort of my questions to the legislator — individuals — representatives. And there’s really no reason to put a barrier in place. There are operators out there who will operate it for them. And share revenue back. You know. So, it’s not like they have to learn to be a telco.
Chris: We actually — we often say we need an all-hands-on-deck approach, right? We’re not saying that we’re going to pick which is the correct approach for any given town. But they sure need to have all the options open to them.
Carole: That’s exactly it.
Chris: Let me ask you what other — if there’s any other challenges that you’re facing, in terms of making sure that western New Hampshire has the connections it needs.
Carole: Well, I have to say that when I agreed to do this project, I didn’t know how much politics was going to be involved. And so, that was eye-opening. But, more importantly than that was this whole pole-attachment issue in New Hampshire. And it stymies me, because it is, in fact — 20 percent of our costs on this project went to pole attachment work. To the utilities, for licensing, for moving — you know, third-party moves, and utility moves, and new poles, and replacement, and so on. And so that’s the cost structure. And that’s pretty high. But more importantly, it’s the time. So the way the PUC has set up this process in New Hampshire, allows each entity — whether it be the electrical entity or the telco or the third-party attachers — a phenomenal amount of time to do their work. So, you submit an application, it could be as long as, you know, 6 weeks to 12 weeks. And then the next group has to — then it’s another 6 to 12 weeks to the make-ready. And then the next group has to come in. It could take you as long as nine months to a year to get on a pole. And in some cases — as we’re finding in the Enfield region — those applications were submitted in the fall of 2011, and they’re not done in Enfield. So we’re well over a year, for the utility to do their make-ready work.
So, just imagine if you’re trying to recruit a national business to your town. And you have the perfect location for this business, but you need to run broadband out to that location in order for them to have the service that they need. And you tell that company it will take nine months to a year to get you a fiber broadband connection.
Chris: That’s a problem.
Carole: Yeah. Where do you think they’re going to go?
Chris: Yeah. They’re going to go somewhere else, is for sure.
Carole: That’s right. And so, that process of pole attachment needs to change. Because it is an — it’s just a very big barrier to building out networks, to connecting businesses, to connecting new businesses in industrial areas. It is just a very onerous process.
Chris: Now, I often find that people assume that the problem of being in the right-of-way — which includes pole attachment to some extent — is a problem of local government being, somehow, lazy or incompetent. But what you’re saying is that it’s the pole owners — which tends to be maybe Fairpoint, maybe an electric utility — you know, it’s a variety of people. Is that — am I understanding that correctly?
Carole: That IS correct. And so, generally speaking, the poles are co-owned — by the utility — the electric utility — and the tel- — the incumbent telco. And so, in both of those cases, they need to look at the poles and decide if make-ready work is being prepared. The process is bad. But, more importantly, it sort of has to start from the beginning. Where do you put the first wire on the pole? At what level? To leave space for additional carriers?
Chris: Right. And no one wants to be the lowest wire on the pole.
Carole: Right. And yet, the lowest wire, for whatever reason, seems to have to be the incumbent telco. So, they don’t put it at the minimum level. The put it, you know, much higher up on the pole. And then the next person comes along — the next company — and they need to drop theirs by a foot, add the next one, and now you have to move both of them. It’s just a process that doesn’t work well.
But in New Hampshire, the other — there’s this other contentious issue, about whether municipalities have rights to be on the pole. And, originally, when they put poles in the right-of-way, that was the case. And municipalities could have access, and even a defined section on the pole, in which municipalities could use the poles. But over time, that been narrowed. The scope of what they can put on the poles has been narrowed. To the extent where I believe it’s only public safety — you know, connectivity that can be put in that location on the municipal space on the pole. But that discussion keeps going, you know, back and forth, between the PUC and the municipalities — is, do they or do they not have a space on the pole that belongs to the municipality? And so, that’s another area that, I’m sure, most people think it’s defined already. But probably needs to make sure that it gets challenged, and, you know, put to bed.
Chris: Is there anything else that we should know about the project in New Hampshire?
Carole: That this is just the beginning. That we need to move these types of projects forward, across the state, so that we can reach these rural areas. Because only with this kind of broadband in the rural areas will they survive, from an economic perspective. So, I think that’s — you know, it’s important that we continue this work.
And I appreciate all the work that you do, as well. Because I think you — your institute has a way of opening minds and doors, and it’s an important place to start the conversation.
Chris: Well, thank you. I think there’s going to be many communities who will be very interested in learning more about FastRoads. We’ll have a link to your website. And we you hope that you have all the success in the world as the project moves forward.
Carole: Thank you.
Chris: Thank you so much for coming on.
Lisa: Carole Monroe, thank you for visiting with us and sharing the status on New Hampshire FastRoads. The project website, newhampshirefastroads.net , contains more information on the project as it develops. If you follow the “New Hampshire” tag atmuninetworks.org , you can read our coverage.
We encourage your questions or comments. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow us on Twitter to learn more about the most recent developments relating to community networks, broadband policy, and telecommunications. Our handle on Twitter is @communitynets . This show was released on March 5th, 2013. Thanks to D. Charles Speer & the Helix for their song, “Freddie’s Lapels,” licensed using Creative Commons.
This article is apart of MuniNetworks. The original piece can be found here