The entire town of Mason is poised to get better internet, as part of federal funding aimed at improving broadband access for towns across the state.
The importance of consistent access to internet and fast speeds has never been more apparent than during the era of COVID-19, when large numbers of workers and students switched to a work-from home model.
The state has designated $50 million of coronavirus relief grant funds to improve broadband access for rural areas.
According to Consolidated Communications spokeswoman Shannon Sullivan, the whole town of Mason is anticipated to be covered by the buildout.
Through Consolidated Communications, Mason is set to receive $1.4 million of those funds, according to Sullivan, with an additional $500,000 contributed by Consolidated, to connect the entire town to broadband internet.
The funding is part of a $3.5 million award given to Consolidated Communications to build fiber internet networks to serve Mason, Danbury and Springfield, and to upgrade existing internet services in Errol.
The CARES funding requires a quick turnaround – it is only accessible to projects that can be completed by December. Mason had already begun the process of mapping the town’s internet speeds, a process the town’s Broadband Committee had begun in hopes of presenting a warrant article for the town to bond for better internet during March Town Meeting.
“CARES Act monies means there are funds available but with very limited timeframes. Given the large territory we cover in New Hampshire, we are well-positioned to complete projects in many areas. We are leveraging our existing strong vendor relationships to procure materials, including fiber and electronics, to ensure we are able to fulfill the requirements of the grant award,” Sullivan wrote in an email to the Ledger-Transcript.
Mike Judge, chair of Mason’s Broadband Committee, said the town has been very focused on improving its internet, and had already been in conversation with Consolidated Communications about providing a quote for a possible project. But he said Mason was only informed when the public announcement went out.
“We were floored. We were so thrilled,” Judge said.
Judge said while Mason had been moving forward with a proposal to bond with an internet provider to build a network – which would have meant the town owned the infrastructure – they are thrilled to trade off ownership for grant funding.
“[Towns that have bonded] might have more flexibility long term, but all things being equal, we’re getting what they’re paying for for free, and we’re getting it installed in the next few months,” Judge said. “That’s important because we have people in town that are just unable to do much of anything. They can’t work from home, they can’t teach from home. This couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Kristen Kivela, superintendent of the Mason School District and principal of the elementary school, said in the spring, when schooling went remote, there were students who struggled to access their online classes due to their home internet situation. Kivela said that’s a concern that will stretch at least into the first quarter of the upcoming school year, with Mason Elementary implementing a hybrid model that has students learning online three days of the week.
“There were high school kids sitting in our parking lot, accessing our internet, because they didn’t have good access at home. I’m working with families now to figure out a better solution for the fall,” Kivela said.
Kivela said the district is in discussion with communications companies about devices such as hotspots for students without good access and discussed with other town organizations about opening their wi-fi to the public to assist students in the fall.
Judge said the town is currently setting up a teleconference meeting with the Broadband Committee, Select Board and Consolidated Communications where he said the town should learn more specifics about the projects. That meeting has yet to be scheduled, but is expected to happen sometime this week, Judge said.
Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.