An effort to add broadband to the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative’s (NHEC) charter will end on October 14th after a month-long membership vote which began in September. If it passes, it will represent a new era for the co-op and open the way for better connectivity for tens of thousands living in the state.
Back in June a ballot initiative fell short by two percentage points of the threshold needed to change the cooperative’s governing documents. A grassroots organizing campaign and Board vote immediately thereafter, however, affirmed both the membership’s and the new Board’s commitment to broadband as essential infrastructure.
In mid-August the Board voted unanimously to propose amendments to the NHEC’s charter, and in September President and CEO Steve Camarino went on the New Hampshire Business Review’s podcast to talk about how important connectivity is for all in the state and the role NHEC could play in bringing better access to those in its service territory and beyond. Per procedure, all 85,000 members of the electric cooperative were given a chance to vote by mail or electronically starting in the middle of September, and the window closes on Wednesday.
As it stands, NHEC bylaws [pdf] allow it to pursue projects like broadband, but current policy and procedure requires an approval process which prevents it the flexibility and speed it needs to do take advantage of state and federal funds and make broadband-related capital investments. The change under consideration would allow members as well as the Board to move with the same speed it is allowed to on electric utility service projects for broadband ones as well. The current requirement on non-electric utility service involves a months-long membership vote. From the co-op’s website:
Affordable, reliable, high-speed Internet [access] is critical for the vitality of NHEC’s members and the communities we serve. However, due to the rural nature of the Co-op’s service territory, many NHEC members do not have access to these services. In response to this pressing need, NHEC is working to help ensure all Co-op members have access to broadband Internet service.
The state put $50 million in CARES Act funds into a pot for broadband projects at the beginning of the summer, with the first $6 million handed out in early August. A second round of $16.7 million was announced at the end of the month, with NHEC applying for and winning $6.7 million for pilot projects in Lempster, Colebrook, Stewartstown, and Clarksville (where it owns the majority of the utility poles) to connect 845 unserved premises. It will match the funds with $3.8 million of its own capital. Per the co-op, future broadband investments could take any number of forms, from building and leasing a fiber backbone, to partnerships, to owning and operating a network.
Changing the bylaws requires a two-thirds vote by existing membership. We’ll update this story with the results when they come in.