LEMPSTER — New Hampshire Electric Cooperative is returning to its roots in its quest to bring high-speed internet access to members.
The co-op recently announced that it has applied to the state for funding to build fiber-optic networks in Lempster, where on Dec. 4, 1939, the co-op set its first utility pole.
Pole No. 1 was part of a distribution system crossing 111 miles of rural Sullivan County, according to the co-op, which now connects 84,000 members through 5,600 miles of lines in 115 communities.
Although it no longer carries any power lines, Pole No. 1, which is in a field off Allen Road, is still standing, said Seth Wheeler, the co-op’s communications administrator.
In addition to Lempster in Sullivan County, Colebrook in Coos County was chosen as a site for fiber-optic networks in the funding request. Wheeler said both are in underserved areas.
The projects are contingent on being funded through the Connecting New Hampshire Emergency Broadband Expansion Program, which is a $50 million initiative of the federal CARES Act/Coronavirus Relief Fund, Wheeler said.
The projects would provide fiber-to-the-premises with internet service options with 1-gigabit-per-second speed to a total of 845 members in Lempster and Colebrook who are currently without broadband.
Last month, the co-op’s board of directors announced that in response to a petition effort by members to add providing high-speed internet access to the nonprofit’s mission statement, it had formed a separate entity to pursue funding opportunities.
The board appropriated $1 million for the effort, an action that Wheeler said permitted the co-op to file an application for funding through the Connecting New Hampshire Emergency Broadband Expansion Program and the Rural Digital Opportunity Funds.
The state expects to award grants from the Connecting NH Program by mid-July, the co-op said, with projects needing to be completed by the end of December 2020.
Tom Mongeon, chairman of the co-op’s board of directors, said the applications to bring high-speed internet to Lempster and Colebrook “are a start” in what might be a multi-year campaign to ensure that all members have the same opportunity.
In a letter of support to the NH Office of Strategic Initiatives, which is administering the Connecting NH program, state Rep. Steve Smith of Charlestown said that while electricity was “a critical need” in Lempster 81 years ago, today “reliable internet is also a critical need.”
“I have personally corresponded with Lempster residents who were disadvantaged in dealing with state agencies for relief, filing unemployment claims, registering vehicles, and getting the information to navigate it all because they had no internet access,” Smith, chairman of the Sullivan County Delegation, said.
Derek Ferland, the Sullivan County manager, wrote that there are 358 properties in Lempster that lack access to broadband.
“The past few months have demonstrated how devastating this situation is for these families,” he said. “Children have been unable to adequately keep pace with remote learning and access to remote telehealth remains out of reach. Because of COVID-19, we have a better understanding of the high social and economic costs posed by the lack of reliable broadband in our rural communities.”
State Rep. Judy Aron, of Acworth, whose district also includes Lempster, Goshen, Langdon and Washington, told the Office of Strategic Initiatives (OSI) that “Broadband expansion and upgrade is of critical importance to our small rural towns, especially as children need proper internet access if they are learning at home, or if families need to be able to connect with work and family through social platforms like ZOOM, GoToMeeting and other similar applications.”
She added that “it is also critical that our first responders and essential employees be able to have reliable connectivity.”
Smith and Aron asked the OSI to extend the December completion deadline for the Lempster project.