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Coronavirus funds for broadband?

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The coronavirus pandemic has moved school and work online, but broadband internet is still unavailable in parts of New Hampshire.  This threatens some residents’ ability to keep up with schoolmates and colleagues.  One possible solution is government funding to build more broadband infrastructure, but it will take years to build. 

Broadband access in NH 

According to a 2019 report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 95% of the population in New Hampshire has access to high speed internet.   

That number drops to 90% in Grafton County, 83% in Sullivan County, 74% in Coos County, and 71% in Cheshire County. 

The FCC defines high speed internet as 25 megabits per second in download speed.  Consumer advocates argue that’s probably not enough if multiple people are streaming in the same household. 

The coronavirus crisis has put broadband access in the spotlight, but for many communities this is a longstanding problem.  For years towns and cities in western New Hampshire have struggled to attract workforce and business due to poor internet access.

Coronavirus funding for broadband? 

Earlier this year the federal CARES Act gave New Hampshire $1.25 billion to spend on coronavirus-related programs.  So far Gov. Sununu has allocated $845 million of that money, leaving $400 million in reserve.

In late April the New Hampshire Senate Democrats released their proposal for how to spend the $1.25 billion in federal money. One of their funding priorities was $40 million to build out broadband to households without access.  

The Legislative Advisory Board in the Governor' Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR) also released recommendations for the first round of CARES Act spending, and they did not include broadband spending.  However, they did make a note about broadband in a section titled “Future Considerations,” with a proposal for $44 million. 

Supporters argue that there is no known end-date for the coronavirus pandemic, and New Hampshire needs to prepare for long-term remote learning and working.  If New Hampshire does not expand broadband infrastructure, students in underserved areas will fall behind and workers unable to telecommute will fall on unemployment. 

Expanding broadband will also help grow the economy in underserved areas, regardless of what happens with the coronavirus. 

Is there a better way to get broadband? 

Opponents of funding broadband with coronavirus money point out that it takes years to build broadband infrastructure.  Throwing money at the problem will not help the students and workers stuck at home right now. 

There are also many other priorities for the federal CARES Act funds.  For example, housing advocates expect a wave of evictions and foreclosures unless the government helps renters and homeowners pay bills during the coronavirus shutdowns.  

Meanwhile the 2020 legislature was considering various proposals to make it easier for towns to attract or build their own broadband infrastructure.  For example, SB 457 would allow towns and cities to group together and form "communications districts" for the purpose of funding broadband infrastructure. 

Two other bills, SB 459 and SB 559 would make it easier for towns to solicit proposals for broadband. 

The legislature suspended activity due to the coronavirus and is only planning to vote on a few more bills this year.  It’s not clear if any of these bills will make the cut.  If they don’t, they will likely be proposed again next year. 

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