“I think it’s an exciting time for the county and for the communities in the county to finally be in a position to have action on broadband,” Grafton County Administrator Andrew Dorsett said Friday. The approval on Sept. 20 comes from a portion of the county’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 funding and will support municipal efforts to design and engineer last-mile connections into the network, as well as grant-writing for the county and municipalities and legal services, said county officials.
The three-member county commission has already approved the submission of a grant application for $26.2 million to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Broadband Infrastructure Program (NTIA), in partnership with the Omaha, Nebraska-based eX2 Technology, which in August was selected by Grafton County as the broadband project contractor.
He called it a fundamental first step in constructing the network and thanked the Grafton County Executive Committee and Grafton County Commission for their support for a project that “will bring economic opportunity and new investment to our communities” and that “will also be key to our workforce development efforts to attract, train and deploy skilled workers needed in critical public health, safety and technology jobs.”
In addition to eX2, the county broadband committee is partnering with the St. Johnsbury-based Northern Community Investment Corp. and Drummond Woodsum Law, of Manchester, for support to municipalities in the completion of final construction designs, funding for the design, construction and legal services, and project management.
The NTIA grant awards are expected to be announced in November, but with the county’s timeline to complete the project in a year, the broadband committee wanted to be ready to begin in November.
In a statement, Nik Coates, town administrator for Bristol and chair of the Grafton County Broadband Committee, said, “The committee set an ambitious timeline to have this project lined up for funding within one year of the establishment of the committee last September. We met that goal and now we are moving ahead toward construction of this critical infrastructure and quality of life project for our communities.”
Dorsett said completing the project in one year’s time remains at the forefront.
County officials remain hopeful for the NTIA funding.
“If we can get all the funding sources to align, I think we can do it,” he said. “If the NTIA comes through, that’s what we’re going to do. If it doesn’t, we will have to go back to the first option that we were working on before ARPA, which is a public-private partnership kind of deal.”
“It’s always very competitive with limited funding,” said Dorsett. “We put forward a good application and we’re shovel-ready and probably farther along than a lot of other applicants.”
If the NTIA funding doesn’t come through, he said it’s still possible to stay on the one-year timeline if the county can work with an investor-developer that will meet the needs of the community.
If the county has to go that route, Dorsett said it will probably use more ARPA funding, possibly up to $10 million of Grafton County’s total $17,459,302 allotment, as seed money to attract a private entity.
The engineering approved by the county executive committee will also move the project toward being shovel-ready for other private investment and public grant funds or infrastructure funds in the future.
The broadband system is expected to boost schools and education, municipal services, public safety and businesses, as well as an open-access network that opens up private investment from broadband carriers to provide high-speed Internet to homes and businesses.
Along with the engineering work, newly-approved funding will be used to match grant opportunities that the county has applied for on behalf of member municipalities, with that money going toward the creation of high-level designs in each municipality that allows them to connect into the backbone and then distribute fiber, wireless and cellular services to their residents and businesses.
The county is looking at a total 353-mile-broadband-middle mile, or backbone, network called Grafton County Broadband Now.
The project will deliver a high-speed system that connects to the University of New Hampshire’s IBEAM network, a statewide fiber network, for municipal, school and county public safety, educational services, and other services.
The network will not only benefit education and those who work from home, but will also attract to the region those companies that want to be based in rural areas, he said.
“Part of it is going to be able to run that lane so Coos County can connect to it in Littleton or Bethlehem,” said Dorsett. “I don’t think they can move forward without our stuff in. Our system will connect to Coos and also to Carroll County. What we’re doing makes it possible for them.”
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