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Westmoreland, N.H., Voters Air Broadband Plan Questions

High-speed Internet could come to all area addresses without a tax increase if a two-thirds majority of voters sign off. Residents attended a recent town hall meeting to learn more about the project.

by Jake Lahut, The Keene Sentinel / December 11, 2019

(TNS) — A lingering problem met a new solution Monday night in Westmoreland.

Ahead of a consequential town-meeting vote next year, residents heard from the town’s broadband advisory committee and representatives from Consolidated Communications about how high-speed Internet could come to all Westmoreland addresses without a tax increase.

The initiative — if passed by a two-thirds majority of voters in March — would follow the Chesterfield model, which saw more than 60 miles of cable laid down over the summer. Last month, Chesterfield won the Excellence in Finance Award from the national Council of Development Finance Agencies for its deal to bond a broadband expansion.

More than two dozen people packed into a meeting room at Westmoreland Town Hall Monday, with committee Chairman John Snowdon leading the informational session, one of two required ahead of the March vote.

Snowdon recounted a casual meeting in 2018 with his fellow committee members — Chris Ballou and JJ Prior — over scones and coffee, where the men set out to find a way to get the town past slow dial-up Internet.

According to their research, 91 percent of Westmoreland residents are unable to reach the federal government’s threshold for high-speed Internet. That’s defined as having a 25 megabit-per-second download speed and a 3 mbps upload speed.

Eighty-eight percent of Westmoreland properties are connected to Consolidated Communications — formerly known as FairPoint Communications until that company was acquired by Consolidated for $1.5 billion in 2016 — which some residents in attendance expressed wariness about, citing memories of what they described as poor customer service under FairPoint and doubts over whether anything has changed.

Snowdon sought to assuage those anxieties, and Prior noted that only one other company’s proposal for broadband expansion met the town’s requirements.

Nevertheless, Rob Koester, the vice president of consumer products at Consolidated Communications, told those present that he was willing to hear their concerns with prior service issues.

Koester also took a friendly yet methodical approach to explaining why it’s different this time, citing his company’s focus on rural broadband and a new law championed by state Sen. Jay V. Kahn, D-Keene, that allows towns to bond for broadband expansion in a way that doesn’t require a tax increase.

“Rural broadband is what we do,” Koester said. “We serve 23 states ... We serve some larger towns, but no NFL cities.”

The transition from FairPoint to Consolidated is one Koester likened to a large ship turning around, where it takes some time between the rudder changing direction and the actual direction of the vessel coming into alignment.

Westmoreland retiree Mark Terry listened intently to Koester’s pitch, but asked how the whole thing is not too good to be true.

The expansion would entail the town taking out a $1.2 million bond over 20 years.

Consolidated would cover the principal and interest, getting paid back through user fees not to exceed $11 per month.

Those who do not want any upgrades would not have to pay into any of the expansion.

The fee would come on top of the usual Consolidated monthly rate of around $49, and no matter how many homes end up upgrading, Consolidated would cover whatever difference is left on the bond, according to Koester.

So what does Consolidated get out of it?

Exclusive use of the cables, Koester and Snowdon explained, along with a new customer base.

But both men praised Kahn’s work on Senate Bill 170 as the catalyst behind such a deal being possible without increased tax commitments.

Brad Roscoe, who ran the Chesterfield broadband committee, said the expansion has been a success so far in his town, and likewise credited Kahn.

The town of Dublin is also moving ahead with plans to contract with Consolidated, and held a similar broadband informational meeting on Saturday.

As more Americans work remotely for some or all of their jobs, the so-called Digital Divide facing rural communities can pull them out of competition in the real estate and workforce markets.

One attendee Monday night described not even being able to use QuickBooks at his home office in Westmoreland, and recalled his exhaustive efforts to increase his upload and download speeds over the copper dial-up wires with FairPoint to no avail.

By the end of the evening, Snowdon urged attendees to spread the word and turn out to vote for the measure in March so it can clear the two-thirds majority.

“Everybody’s on the Internet and on Facebook complaining about their service,” Snowdon said. “Put the computer down — that doesn’t work anyway because the service is so bad — and come on down to town meeting and vote.

“That’s the only way this gets fixed.”

©2019 The Keene Sentinel (Keene, N.H.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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