Rick Hiland

Albany Selectmen's chair Rick Hiland leads a meeting Wednesday about brining high speed internet to underserved areas in the Mount Washington Valley. (DAYMOND STEER PHOTO)

ALBANY — A pair of residents are working to provide greater access to high-speed internet to the region, and they will be looking for support from any Carroll County towns that seek to join them.

The Albany residents are Steve Knox and selectmen’s chair Rick Hiland. They are spearheading a selectmen-approved effort they call the “Mount Washington Valley Broadband Project.” However, the scope could extend beyond the valley. They have hosted two meetings

on the subject, including the one on March 27. So far that have attracted town and county officials as well as business leaders.

Knox said affordable access to high-speed fiber broadband internet is necessary infrastructure in the 21st century.

The market has not yet provided this service to parts of the Mount Washington Valley because it’s not lucrative enough for companies to do so because of lack of density. Maps of fiber optic lines in New Hampshire are out of date. Some entities in the valley like Kennett High School do have optical fiber internet.

“If we miss out on that we are dead in the water,” said Knox. “That is our access to the world.”

Hiland said the next step is to form a committee, and the scope of the project needs to be developed based on interest.

“I’d like to get some support from the select boards in various towns — some serious commitment,” said Hiland. “Not that we are going to follow through with all this but just to continue the work we have done.”

Hiland said he intends to visit various town selectmen’s meetings to present the case.

“There’s a lot to this, and we need some help,” said Hiland.

Meanwhile, the New Hampshire Senate on Thursday passed by voice vote a bill called Senate Bill 103. This bill would allow downs to bond jointly for telecommunications upgrades. State Sen. Jeb Bradley (R-Wofeboro) told the Sun this will help rural towns.

ValleyNet Inc. Board Member and broadband consultant Carole Monroe was a guest at Wednesday’s meeting.

ValleyNet is a non-profit internet service provider. It operates a community-owned “telecommunications union district” called East Central Vermont Telecommunications District, better known as ECFiber, which offers “wicked fast” fiber-optic internet service to east-central Vermont that would be unserved or underserved by traditional internet providers.

Monroe was invited to the Albany meeting because elements of ECFiber’s business model might be applicable to the effort in the Mount Washington Valley.

The structure of ECFiber is similar in formation to a multi-town water or sewer district. It has 24 member towns and each have the ability to have a delegate on ECFiber’s board. The towns voted to join ECFiber at their respective annual meetings in 2008. ValleyNet is the construction management and operations company for ECFiber.

ECFiber currently has an optical fiber network in  22 of 24 member towns in East Central Vermont with high-speed internet up to 700 Megabytes per second for uploads and downloads. The other two towns have robust cable services and since the mission is to first serve those that are not served, they will be built after the unserved areas are covered.

At present ECFiber has 3,400 customers and 725 miles of network. ECFiber has on average five or six customers per mile of fiber. The cost to build out the lines is about $30,000 per mile.

The lowest speed, 25 Mbps, costs subscribers $74 per month. ECFiber offers unlimited data and no contracts.

The Federal Government defines “broadband” as 25 Mbps download and three Mbps upload. She said those speeds are minimal in today’s world. Internet users in other countries expect much higher speeds.

In fact, she said, many computer applications used globally are built to run on at least 50 Mbps.

Monroe explained that ECFiber got off the ground using investor funding. Later, ECFiber took out municipal revenue bonds.

No local tax dollars were used for the construction and operations. However, ECFiber may borrow against future revenues.

Monroe explained that fiber is necessary for modern businesses to function. EC Fiber has been helpful for a local plastics company, attorneys’ offices, marketers, gas stations and cafes plus a number of more unusual businesses. For instance one couple in ECFiber’s coverage area has an international business based on organically tanning sheepskin.

“They can only be international because of the internet service that they have today,” said Monroe who said a blown glass company also found it could go international because of the availability of high speed internet.

She said ECFiber also serves Fat Toad Caramel of Brookfield, Vt. Fat Toad sells its products in major stores like Whole Foods and also does business internationally.

She said Fat Toad is located off the beaten path on a long dirt road and therefore didn’t have access to high-speed internet before ECFiber came along.

Lessons that ECFiber learned along the way are that it’s better to design and engineer the network for a whole town instead of part of a town and then build it incrementally, if necessary; their cost per mile construction is lower than most because they are a municipality and operated by a not-for-profit, and with ready access to video streaming services, it’s unnecessary to offer a cable TV option.

She said the longest timeline in the construction schedule is in accessing the utility poles. It’s very time consuming to have fiber lines installed on utility poles. On a utility pole, the power lines go on top and other lines for things like phone and TV have to be moved to make room for the fiber.

Monroe recommended that anyone seeking to build such a network have patience and persistence.

Anyone who wishes to help Hiland and Knox may contact Albany town hall through contact@albanynh.org.

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