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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Net gains from grant for NH

The long, complicated effort to spread high-speed Internet service throughout New Hampshire got a $66 million boost last week as a federal stimulus grant started a three-year countdown for spreading “middle-mile” fiber-optic lines from Rindge to Berlin.

Mountaintop microwave towers, wireless links north of the notches and connections to big connection rings in Massachusetts and Maine were added to the state’s broadband backbone mix.

The system is being built by a public-private consortium called Network New Hampshire Now and, once completed, will be open to use by private Internet services for a fee, just as toll roads can be used by any company’s trucks.

While important, this effort is hardly isolated. Many private companies are pushing broadband, such as FairPoint Communications’ creation of faster DSL over phone lines based on its own “middle mile” build-out; Comcast’s increased speeds for some cable-modem service; and a host of cell-phone companies preparing to roll out so-called 3G and 4G wireless data plans.

These hint at a future in which much of the Granite State is tied together by Internet service fast enough to boost long-dreamed-of possibilities as “tele-medicine” and remote education, not to mention better communication for emergency services in remote areas.

“It’s significant for the state,” said Michael Blair, GIS consultant for the Southwest Regional Planning Commission, one of the member organizations in Network New Hampshire Now.

“Over the next few years, it’s going to be a good thing for a lot of people and businesses, economic development, education.”

The broadband announcement concerned $44.5 million from federal stimulus funds to Network New Hampshire Now, money that will be matched with $22 million in cash or in-kind assistance from network firms, the state and others.

The work, including some “last mile” work in Rindge and Enfield, must be finished within three years of the federal grant being awarded, which hasn’t happened yet; the award was only announced last week.

The request was submitted by the University of New Hampshire on behalf of a variety of government, private and nonprofit groups. It was part of a process born out of the 2008 New Hampshire Broadband Action Plan, which talked about uses such as:

n Connecting the New Hampshire State Library’s databases and libraries to the public.

n Dveloping “health care information exchanges” to digitize and speed doctor’s office visits.

n Making use of “dark fiber,” or cables that were laid during the dot-com boom and not fully used.

n And even getting the state Department of Transportation to help lay fiber-optic lines along highways.

Many states received similar stimulus grants last week. They’re part of $7.2 billion earmarked for broadband infrastructure under the stimulus program, which is known officially as ARRA.

Greater Nashua is unlikely to see many direct benefits from the Network New Hampshire Now system because it’s one of the best-served areas in the state. That’s thanks to a density of businesses and population that has drawn commercial interest, and to the presence in some places of FairPoint’s FAST, the state’s only fiber-to-the-home system for residences.

However, Blair said indirect benefits in Nashua could include faster speeds as a result of a variety of better connections to the Internet, as well as more places within the state to which broadband connections can be made.

The grant doesn’t stand alone; in fact, there are so many government and quasi-government efforts to spread broadband that it’s hard to keep them straight.

Notably, the U.S. Department of Commerce gave a relatively small but important $1.7 million to UNH’s GRANIT project, which develops geographic-information systems (GIS) in order to allow street-by-street mapping of broadband access throughout New Hampshire – information that will help drive decisions about how best to boost “last mile” service.

The grant announced Friday contains a small “last mile” component of its own, overseen by a state nonprofit called FastRoads. It will string fiber to about 1,000 homes in Rindge, on the Massachusetts border west of Peterborough, and to a similar number in Enfield, near Hanover. The Monandock Region and Connecticut River Valley have long been weak spots in the state’s Internet-access picture.

Not everybody is delighted with the newest stimulus grant. FairPoint has balked at such expenditures, expressing concern that they create taxpayer-supported competition to its own efforts.

Even since it bought Verizon’s phone lines in Northern New England, FairPoint has touted its plans to provide a faster flavor of DSL, which is broadband delivered over copper phone lines. But those plans depend on multimillion-dollar expansion of its own fiber-optic backbone throughout the state.

The Network New Hampshire Now “middle mile” system is similar to FairPoint’s backbone, and follows many of the same routes.

The Network New Hampshire Now concept includes more than fiber-optic cables that will feed other cables leading out to homes and businesses. Because laying cables through the state’s hills and mountains is so expensive, it includes microwave towers on mountains that could transmit signals from one region to another.

It also hooks into a series of wireless towers in the North Country and the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont called LINC, which is trying to create an open-access broadband network in that low-population area.

The proposal was submitted by UNH on behalf of a team of partners that includes New Hampshire Public Television, the Community College System of New Hampshire, West Central New Hampshire Network, Southwest Regional Planning Commission, Keene Municipal Broadband Committee, Monadnock Economic Development Corp., New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority, the state departments of Safety and Transportation, the N.H. National Guard and numerous broadband providers.

UNH said the grant would create “nearly 700 new jobs and provide affordable Internet access to 12,000 businesses and 700 community institutions.”

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