KDW for the September 2020 Andover Beacon
Battling for Broadband - Danbury wins the “long game”
Politicians often talk about “fighting” for their constituents in Concord. I can assure you, in such “fights” no punches are actually thrown, and Representatives do not grapple their ideological opponents, rolling around on the floor, pulling each others’ hair and neckties. The actual struggles can get plenty heated, but the real challenge is how to get beyond the argument and bring people together, so they can work together. This type of struggle is much longer and drawn out, like holding a team together through a series of matches in the pursuit of a championship. Here’s what such a struggle actually looks like, from my point of view.
When I was a boarding school teacher, I had a mentor, friend and colleague named Fritz Wiedergott. He was a World Champion skeet shooter and a fabulously wise coach of soccer, wrestling and lacrosse. I remember him telling his teams year after year, “Good luck is what happens when Opportunity meets Preparedness.” Fritz was persistently the winningest coach in the league, building a soccer dynasty with well over 200 victories and many league championships over his career. He always looked ahead, and made sure that he and his teams were prepared before every match.
A persistent citizen’s group in Danbury has been working for years to improve high-speed internet access. I'm happy to say that the Danbury Broadband Committee used the same strategy as Fritz, so they were well prepared when Opportunity finally came knocking.
On a Sunday night a couple of weeks back I got a happy phone call from a “legislative liaison” (aka lobbyist) for an internet service provider with whom I had what I would mildly describe as “a somewhat abrasive exchange” in a Science, Technology and Energy hearing more than a year ago. Back then, the lobbyist had testified that “98% of the folks living in our Company’s territory have broadband access, except perhaps in the far North Country”. “In fact”, I corrected the Company representative, “only 9% of Danbury households have internet that meets the broadband internet standard. Moreover, your Company’s ridiculous claim of high service percentage makes Danbury ineligible for USDA grants meant to bring broadband into underserved rural communities.”
For years, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) had been putting off inquiries by the Danbury Broadband Committee, telling them Danbury’s population is so spread out it didn’t make good business sense to even consider bringing high speed internet service into town. Today’s competitive markets among ISPs, somewhat like the markets for health insurance, encourage providers to “cherrypick” the most profitable customers and avoid providing service to folks who will be more expensive to serve. As you can imagine, Danbury residents were beyond frustrated by this. Especially these days, with remote learning, social distancing and “zooming” into meetings for business and to catch up with friends and relatives, not having broadband is a terrible disadvantage. The Danbury team felt it couldn't win, because the ISPs wouldn't even show up to play!
On that day a year ago, that lobbyist was really unhappy with being called out and “got all up in my grille” after the hearing adjourned. I listened patiently, then calmly pointed out to the lobbyist that, based on what I just heard, their Company, and indeed the entire ISP industry was headed the right way to become a regulated utility in NH. Enacting such a law would mean that the NH government would treat their industry as a geographic monopoly (as electric utilities are today) and prescribe fair rates and all the terms of service they provide - not a delicious prospect for this profit-driven industry!
The Company responded quickly by sending an engineer, a financial officer and a serious pitch to the next Danbury Broadband Committee meeting. The Danbury team included Linda Ray Wilson, Jessica Hatch, Kris Martin and Nikki Quartulli. Also attending the meetings were Carol Miller, NH Director of Broadband Technology in the Department of Business and Economic Affairs, Rep. David Karrick, Bob Podolski, a retired IT consultant enlisted by David to help the committee evaluate proposals, and me. After many more meetings, a complete engineering proposal and financial offer was made to Danbury. Unfortunately, the attractive proposal did not find its way to a Town Warrant this winter, and the momentum stalled.
So in the recent Sunday night phone call, the lobbyist was positively ebullient to share with me the surprising news that the Company had just been awarded a CARES Act grant ($6.4M federal COVID relief money to enhance rural broadband statewide) to bring high-speed internet via fiber to every business and residence in five NH towns, including Danbury! The ISP will get paid once they fulfill their promise to bring “fiber to the premises” of every Danbury household by December 15, 2020. The reason Danbury got the nod was that detailed applications for CARES dollars had to be submitted just 10 days after the initial request for proposals, so only a few towns that already had a completed engineering proposal were in the game. Danbury was fully Prepared when Opportunity knocked, and they won! Fritz would be so proud!
Looking ahead and getting ready for the next game
The implications of making high-speed internet available throughout Danbury brings the exciting possibility of attracting tech businesses such as software development companies, IT companies looking for fast connections and low rent to locate their servers, and other web-based, work-from-home enterprises. It will be exciting to see what sorts of economic development will be stimulated in Danbury, and what this tech upgrade does for property values in the area.
Next up: broadband access for North Road from Salisbury to Andover - I’m working on it and have some ideas about how to motivate Salisbury’s ISPs to come to the table. I have found that good things happen when we stop saying “No!” and find a way to work together in the direction of progress.
If you would like to know more about bills I’ve sponsored for campaign finance reform, for industry-sponsored apprenticeships, for fairer forestry laws, and for reducing pollution, or if you’d like to read speeches and essays I’ve made for or against bills during the past two years, please look at my website, electkenwells.org. You will even find a collection of past “Reports from Concord” articles published in the Andover Beacon.
If you would like to talk with me about any local matter you think I should know about, please call me at home 735-5756 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay healthy and be safe, and don’t forget to vote in the September 8 primary!
Ken Wells represents Andover, Danbury and Salisbury in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.