Photo credit: Michael Vadon, via Flickr

Battle Cry of New Hampshire: No Fiber,
No Votes

Last week, Jeb Bush announced he’s running for president, joining a crowded field of eleven Republican candidates, Still in the wings: Govs. Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich and Chris Christie. On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee are in, while former Sen. Jim Webb is testing the waters.

That means that in the months to come, we may have upwards of 20 men and women, accompanied by zillions of staff and supporters, tromping around the great state of New Hampshire, making significant eye contact and asking for votes in preparation for the February 9 primary.

And they will all have the same problem: They won’t be able to communicate.

I don’t mean that they won’t be able to go to town halls and shake hands; there will be plenty of that. But their staffs will often find it incredibly frustrating to send around the large digital files — say, pictures, or video, or that killer PowerPoint presentation mapping county-by-county strategy — that are essential to any campaign. And they’ll have problems making phone calls to keep in touch with the outside world.

Why? Because New Hampshire, our nation’s 42nd most populous state, has lousy connectivity. The FCC defines high-speed Internet access to be 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up these days, and more than a third of the rural population in New Hampshire (most of which votes Republican, by the way) can’t buy that kind of connection at any price. Fewer than one out of every six urban New Hampshire residents can buy that connection even if they want it: the wire just doesn’t exist in their town.

And those figures are for potential “access,” not actual “subscription.” Price matters a great deal, most people in the state have very few — and often just one — choice of provider, and that provider can charge whatever it wants to provide the service of its choice.

For most people in New Hampshire, that sole provider is their local cable monopoly (often Comcast); for about a fifth of homes, that provider is FairPoint Communications, which bought Verizon’s copper lines when Big Red fled the state in 2007, loses money every quarter, and has no particular incentive to upgrade its residential customers from DSL (“the New Dial-Up”) to fiber. Forget gigabit fiber access, which is becoming the global standard: it’s available to fewer than 1 percent of New Hampshire residents.

There’s a last-mile fiber network that was funded by the federal government called New Hampshire FastRoads, but at the moment it’s serving just 19 towns in western New Hampshire; a drop in the New Hampshire bucket of 234 incorporated cities and towns that our beloved candidates will be visiting.

Perhaps not coincidentally, New Hampshire’s economic engine is slowing: people are leaving the state, the population is aging, and labor productivity is declining.

This amounts to something close to slapstick humor in the political realm: a gaggle of communicators talking about economic policy to people who can’t reliably work from home and whose state faces grave economic trouble if it doesn’t fix its access problem. And when those communicators drive on to the next town, they’ll be gasping for wireless signals, particularly in the upper third of the state known as the North Country. Life can be pretty lonely in the Live Free or Die state.

Now, much of New Hampshire is rural and hilly. But rural and hilly needs access too. Just listen to the many comments from people in rural areas that were filed this month with the Department of Commerce in connection with its effort to reboot federal broadband policy:

“Modern technology . . . is desperately needed if people in small-town America are ever going to be able to compete in the 21st Century”

“It would be wonderful to enter the modern age.”

“Our kids and grand kids cannot do their homework satisfactorily when they visit for an extended period of time. We cannot access web sites without it taking hours, and most of the time our server cuts us off in the middle of a download! Shopping is so complicated since there are no stores of any consequence near us.”

“Our only internet option is DSL and the average speed is in the 1–2 mbps range. People are moving out simply because internet options are not changing. Kids can’t complete homework assignments unless they do the work on walmart wifi. Family can’t skype with distant relatives. Professionals are unable to work from home. Security cameras can’t record to the cloud.”

“As of right now our internet option is Hughes Net satellite internet. With my plan I only get 250 mb per day which is not nearly enough to do work from home and computer homework for our kids after school. Other plans are too pricey for our budget. We are stuck. My children attend Camdenton RIII school which now requires much of their schoolwork to be done via computer. I know that there are many others around me that are having the same problems connecting to broadband as I am.”

“I live less than 5 miles north of Springfield, MO, our state’s third largest city, and my neighbors and I do not have access to high-speed internet service. While my son was a student in the Springfield School District, we often made trips to a local library or restaurant where he could use his computer to access the internet service provided for customers.”

“As part of a family that has no wired access to broadband, I can say from experience that the best way to increase adoption of broadband is to ensure its affordability. Infrastructure costs paid by citizens for expansion need to be straightforward, just and reasonable. Companies that don’t want to expand access pull exorbitant prices out of thin air to get people like me to go away.

Expanding only to libraries and other anchor institutions will not help in the long term. It’s like having a pay phone in the middle of town. Handy for emergencies, but not reflecting how a phone can really improve your life. You can’t really leave that pay phone number for job interview contact information, and you can’t go to the library every day to check your email, do school homework, apply for a new career, learn a new skill on Khan academy, etc.”

Here’s a suggestion: someone at every single New Hampshire political event this perfervid season should look those supplicants for office in their beseeching eyes, and raise the question of cheap, ubiquitous, fiber access across the state. And every single candidate — from both parties — should be forced to continue that meaningful eye contact until they’ve answered the question.

So here’s a plea to the flinty people of New Hampshire: Don’t let those candidates leave the town meeting hall until they explain how they will open up your homes — and that of your rural brethren across the nation — to the 21st Century. We need a plan, and it will have to come from the top in order to work.

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Whose failure is it that millions of rural Americans are underserved or not served at all when it comes to high-speed affordable Internet access — the politicians who take money from the big carriers, or the voters who let them off the hook? Can political action make a difference? Please continue the discussion below.