PLYMOUTH — The board of directors of the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, which serves 84,000 homes and businesses in 115 Granite State communities, has voted to pursue providing high-speed internet access for members, and has appropriated $1 million toward the effort.
Meeting on June 24, the board agreed unanimously to “take the necessary steps to create a new separate entity to pursue funding opportunities and further the goal of providing high-speed internet access to its members,” the nonprofit said in a prepared statement.
To meet that goal, the entity “will be charged with pursuing federal, state and local funding opportunities, and developing strategic partnerships….”
On Monday, Cooperative spokesman Seth Wheeler said while the form of the entity is presently undefined, the action by the board of directors last Wednesday allows the Cooperative to seek money from the Connecting New Hampshire Emergency Broadband Expansion Program and the Rural Digital Opportunity Funds.
He said the Cooperative intends to file an application for that funding by July 2.
“We’re working with municipalities, providers, and interested Co-op members and have formed a committee,” Wheeler said on Tuesday, but other than that “I honestly have no idea” as to what the committee might eventually recommend as to meeting its charge.
Founded in 1939 to bring electricity to the rural parts of the state, the Cooperative “already has service territory in most if not all of the areas being under-served” with poor or slow internet access, said Wheeler.
One of the more under-served areas, according to a report by the University of New Hampshire, is Coos County, where broadband was available to approximately 78% of the residents in 2016, and where there remained “areas with limited or no broadband access.”
On Tuesday, Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier hailed the news about Cooperative board’s vote on internet access, and said while it wouldn’t benefit the city specifically, it could be a boon to communities on the west side of Coos County.
“I think that’s a great thing,” said Grenier, who is also the vice chairman of the Coos County Commission. “In the western side of the county, internet access has always been really, really sketchy. We have Spectrum in Berlin, but from Lancaster north, on the Connecticut River, it’s tough.”
Internet access is not markedly better in the heart of the state.
The Sandwich Broadband Advisory Committee, which was appointed by selectmen last year to explore bringing high-speed internet to Sandwich, found only 10% of households could achieve high internet speeds.
“Fast connection speeds are increasingly necessary for home use, businesses, schoolwork, distance learning, health monitoring and other everyday uses,” the BAC said.
One of the BAC’s members is Richard Knox. “To have the board unanimously decide to form a broadband subsidiary ... speaks volumes about the viability of the cooperative model,” Knox said. “We thank the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative board for responding so quickly to the crying need of its members who lack fast, reliable internet service.”