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Broadband Expansion Continues
Published Tuesday, January 31, 2017
by Edith Tucker

The telecom industry in NH is humming with activity. Since 2008, FairPoint Communications has spent $75 million to expand broadband access (basically high-speed data) in NH, part of $900 million it has invested to build, upgrade and expand network infrastructure throughout Northern New England. The company has also opened data centers to entice business customers (see sidebar on page 22).

In the last 18 months, Comcast has added 50 miles of fiber and coaxial cable to serve an additional 1,500 businesses and residents. And, FirstLight Fiber, a northeastern telecom that operates a network spanning more than 126,000 fiber miles throughout NH, was acquired in March by Oak Hill Capital Partners, which has offices in New York, California and Connecticut. Earlier this year, Oak Hill also acquired Oxford Networks, a fiber-optic bandwidth infrastructure services provider operating in Maine, NH and Massachusetts. The companies will operate in aggregate approximately 4,800 route miles of fiber optic network and 10 data centers across New York and New England.

Not All Broadband is Equal
Despite all this activity, rural NH lags behind more developed areas in broadband access, which is defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as offering download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. That said, 93.7 percent of NH subscribers have broadband access, according to a 2015 report by the NH Broadband Mapping and Planning Program.

Those places with the least access to broadband are Cheshire, Coos and Sullivan counties, where many residents live without high-speed data access. These residents must rely on DSL through phone lines or wireless broadband options.

Whether that is sufficient service depends on your needs. For example, most households use broadband for internet searches, streaming video or playing online games. For that, download speeds between 6 Mbps and 15 Mbps are sufficient, per the FCC. That doesn’t mean, though, those download speeds are always available. As any internet user knows, challenges can arise that affect data speed such as whether you are accessing the internet via WiFi (most common) or through a cable, where your modem is located, physical obstructions that reduce speed, and when you are accessing data. Evenings, for example, mean that you are likely sharing bandwidth with your neighbors.

While a typical household does not need download speeds faster than 15 Mbps, businesses, municipalities, health care facilities and schools do. Moving data for a facility with multiple computers and users requires more bandwidth.

The June 2016 broadband report, produced by the NH Broadband Mapping and Planning Program and focused on Coos County, found that internet was limited to download speeds of 6 to 25 Mbps download and 1.5 to 3 Mbps upload for 23.5 percent of Cheshire County, 16.9 percent of Coos County and 18.7 percent of Sullivan County.

Increasing access to broadband has economic development implications for the state. A 2015 NH Broadband Mapping report estimated that significantly increasing broadband availability and adoption could create more than 11,000 jobs with a $634 million economic impact. And that 2015 report went on to list health care (and specifically telemedicine) and education as two areas where broadband is critical to access information and enable communication.

For now, most businesses say they get what they need. Even in rural areas, higher population centers tend to have access to high speed internet. For example, Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier says he does not hear complaints about speed or capacity.

Andrew Nadeau of Lancaster, a principal and chief land surveyor at Horizons Engineering in Littleton, with branches in New London and Newport, Vt., explains there are “work arounds” or inexpensive web-based file transfer protocols (FTPs) to take the place of large-capacity Internet file sharing.

“Although New Hampshire is fairly well served, scoring high with regards to availability and adoption of broadband services, many pockets still exist that lie just outside of the reach of an adequate level of service,” says Carol Miller, director of broadband technology at the NH Division of Economic Development. “These pockets are rural neighborhoods that are mostly served by one provider.

Our major centers have the benefit of competition and service options, but many rural areas, without competition delivering the promise of innovation, will continue to struggle for investments in infrastructure. Smaller companies are sometimes filling those gaps with technologies such as fixed wireless. Smaller rural communities are trying to negotiate expansion of services but have to be willing to contribute to the effort on behalf of their residents. There is still much work to be done.”

In 2015, FairPoint received $4.4 million from the FCC Connect America Fund, Miller says. By accepting the funds, which will continue for six more years, FairPoint committed to constructing and operating network infrastructure to offer broadband service speeds of at least 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload to more than 13,000 underserved NH locations.

That’s good news for the North Country, where there’s been efforts to expand broadband access to spots without service. The Northern Community Investment Corporation in Lancaster started Wireless LINC to offer wireless broadband to 300 to 500 people in unserved or underserved areas. The company houses antennae in multiple locations including a tall silo. Wireless LINC was part of a controversy in 2015 when there was a potential conflict in frequencies with another company and an agreement could not be reached.

While high speed broadband through fiber and cable is available in southern NH for around $60 a month, wireless broadband from Wireless LINC in northern NH costs rural users $49.95 for up to 4 Mbps download speed and 2 Mbps upload speed. For those seeking faster access, the company offers download speeds up to 10 Mbps for $69.95 per month.

Laying the Groundwork
For its part, FirstLight Fiber, headquartered in New York, announced earlier this year that it will provide the backbone communications services for INdigital, which recently won a contract to provide E911 (Enhanced 9-1-1) services throughout NH.

While other vendors are making inroads into the Granite State market, Comcast and FairPoint remain the largest providers, serving a majority of NH homes and businesses.

Comcast is available in 105 communities and has more than 2,050 full-time employees in NH. Since mid-2015, Comcast has expanded its network by 1,500 locations, thanks to 50 new miles of combined fiber and coaxial cable to the home, says Steve Walsh, Comcast’s New England regional vice president.

“Comcast has launched 2 Gigabits per second [Gbps] offerings for residential consumers, in addition to its existing Comcast Business Ethernet solution that provides up to 100 Gbps for businesses,” Walsh says of a program launched in 2015.

The company has no immediate plans to extend its footprint in NH.

Speed and capacity costs more money, Walsh says, so the company works hard to help price-conscious customers determine their actual needs.

NH Xfinity WiFi Pro hotspots now number more than 180,000, he says, which offers on-the-spot advertising opportunities for small businesses, restaurants, auto repair shops and mom-and-pop stores.

FairPoint Communications serves all or part of 237 communities. When it bought the Verizon assets in 2008, only 63 percent of those residential addresses could access high-speed internet. FairPoint now offers broadband to 95 percent of those addresses.

FairPoint also has 7,100 fiber route miles in NH with fiber running to nearly 400 NH cell towers, enabling wireless services, and to a total of 1,800-plus cell towers across Northern New England. After being awarded a four-year contract worth more than $16 million to support the needs of the New England Telehealth Consortium, FairPoint also provides Carrier Ethernet Services to more than 400 health care sites in Maine, NH and Vermont.

Additional reporting contributed by Erika Cohen.

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