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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bringing the Web up to speed

How fast is your Internet service?

That simple-seeming question is at the heart of an ongoing effort to map broadband service throughout New Hampshire – in fact, throughout the country – as a way to help decide how to improve it.

“We hear a lot of anecdotal evidence about lack of service,” said Steve Schaffer, Geographic Information System manager for the Nashua Regional Planning Commission. “For example, anecdotally, we’ve heard there are places in Amherst and Hollis without broadband, although we’re not sure of details. We also hear from Realtors who are trying to sell houses and can’t because there’s no service there.”

The New Hampshire Broadband Mapping Program is trying to move beyond those anecdotes about broadband, or high-speed Internet service, into data.

“The idea is to identify areas where there is a lack of coverage or which are under-served for broadband,” Schaeffer said.

As part of this identification, a community broadband forum, complete with an “interactive mapping session,” will be held in Milford on Tuesday.

People will be asked to fill out a short survey and pinpoint addresses on a map where they know details about available broadband.

New Hampshire wants a broadband map with availability of high-speed Internet down to the street address level “or at least census block level,” Schaeffer said.

Census blocks are small areas, roughly one block in cities and not much bigger in rural areas, devised by the Census Bureau for its data gathering.

The program, managed by the Complex Systems Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, is also dealing with more than 70 companies that provide broadband in New Hampshire to gather information – including accurate measurement about how customer results compare to Internet provider claims.

As part of that, the program’s website, IWantBroadbandNH.org, has a “speed test” that measures actual download and upload speeds at an address.

The Nashua Regional Planning Commission is also surveying “anchor institutions” such as schools, hospitals, government buildings and large businesses that need and can usually pay for specialized broadband service.

Broadband is a relative term. In this case, the federal definition is used: 1.024 Mbps download, 758 Kbps (or 0.78 Mbps) upload.

This is pretty slow by many broadband standards. For example, it’s too slow for dependable streaming of high-quality video.

Informal or industry definitions often start at three times as fast, or 3 Mbps download, and some begin at 10 times as fast. Fiber-to-the-home service, generally the fastest broadband available to residential customers, can approach 100 times the federal definition.

The federal definition means that the slowest DSL, or broadband over copper phone lines, qualifies, as does most satellite Internet service, and the slowest service provided by cable television companies over high-speed modems.

Other options include:

 • Fixed wireless service, which provides Internet signals from towers similar to the way it comes from cell phones, and is becoming a serious alternative in rural, hilly areas where it’s too expensive to run cables to widely scattered homes or businesses.

 • So-called 3G or 4G high-speed data from cell-phone companies such as Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint.

“We will be including cell-phone wireless broadband, but I don’t know if you’re going to find too many areas in southern New Hampshire that have (3G or 4G) and aren’t covered by other providers,” Schaeffer said.

In fact, the New Hampshire Broadband Mapping Program doesn’t expect to find many places in the Nashua area that are under-served, thanks to spillover from the Boston area and the large number of companies here that have paid for specialized high-speed service.

Problem areas are likely to be parts of the Monadnock Region, the upper Connecticut River Valley and the North Country.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.