IN THESE times of widespread doubt that our civic institutions can produce anything for the common good, something amazing just happened in New Hampshire.
The New Hampshire Electric Cooperative (NHEC), a utility that serves 84,000 residents and businesses in 115 towns, surprised a lot of people -- including, perhaps, itself -- by bowing to pressure from member-owners who urged it to jump into the business of providing sorely needed broadband service to under-served communities.
This month the Coop asked for $6.7 million of the $50 million in federal COVID-19 relief money offered by Governor Chris Sununu to expand broadband throughout the state. NHEC proposes to use the money to build fiber-optic networks serving 845 homes and businesses in Colebrook and Lempster (fittingly, the town where the Coop planted its first utility pole back in 1939).
This is the same Coop whose board voted on April 21 to oppose its members’ petition to add “facilitating broadband” to NHEC’s stated purposal. Too risky, the opponents said. It could jeopardize our core mission to keep the lights on. It might increase members’ electrical bills.
I was a member of a ragtag band of Coop members that gathered 845 signatures to get the broadband measure on the ballot of NHEC’s annual election. (Informally we called ourselves the Broadband Conspiracy.) We knew it was a long shot, since two-thirds of voting members would need to vote yes to change the Coop’s bylaws.
When the ballots were counted, 64.4 percent of voting members said, in effect, “we want you to help get us fast, reliable internet service.” They also elected a new board member who is strongly pro-broadband, deposing a nay-sayer.
Our broadband initiative fell 2.6 percentage points short of adding broadband to NHEC’s charter. But actually, we won big. Within a week of the outcome, the Coop board voted unanimously to become a player in the broadband game. NHEC is setting up a subsidiary corporation empowered to partner with broadband developers to build and operate networks. It can apply for government subsidies and borrow money. And the parent company is putting up $3.8 million to get its new venture off the ground.
What caused this remarkable change of heart? “Our members have spoken through the petition,” board chair Tom Mongeon said before the board’s vote.
Actually, the turnaround started in late April. Only a week after the board opposed the petition, it voted to set up an ad hoc committee to explore what kind of role NHEC might play to “facilitate broadband.” That came after a presentation by board member Leo Dwyer, who reviewed the history of member-owned electric cooperatives dating back to the Great Depression, when private utility companies showed no interest in electrifying rural areas.
The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief how crucial fast, reliable internet service is for everyone, wherever they live. “The challenges we will face in the next few years will be like those our founders faced in 1939,” Dwyer told the board. “Our children need an education, people need to work from home, economic viability will suffer [without good connectivity]. The issue is…what our members need.”
Clearly, the mere existence of the members’ petition drive got NHEC thinking like, well, a member-owned cooperative. Dwyer’s subcommittee got to work thinking up options.
Meanwhile, members were mailing and emailing ballots. Thanks in large part to the visibility of the broadband initiative, turnout was 33 percent higher than last year. When the votes were counted, the 64 percent super-majority for the broadband question made the board feel accountable to do something real and meaningful. Suddenly they were receptive to the innovative idea of launching a broadband spinoff.
The governor’s Emergency Broadband Expansion Program added urgency, visibility, opportunity and political oomph.
The game is far from over, but it has been changed. Having the Coop enter the field means the state’s financially stressed telecom company, Consolidated Communications, is not the only big-foot contender for the $50 million fund. That has been a big worry of many rural municipalities, who see the governor’s stringent qualifications for that money as stacking the deck in favor of Consolidated and other for-profit companies, such as cable providers.
Beyond the governor’s fund, there will be competition later this year for $67 million earmarked for New Hampshire under the $20.4 billion federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
“We are hopeful as we begin our work towards the goal of ensuring all NHEC members have access to high-speed internet,” Mongeon said in a news release. “This work may take several years, but these applications are a start.”
The new broadband coop could even expand beyond the NHEC’s current service area, providing competition to pricey internet providers. Just remember: It all began with a no-budget grass-roots campaign.