NHEC President: Broadband Is the Next Essential Service

This opinion piece was written by NHEC President/CEO Steve Camerino and appeared in several New Hampshire publications.

When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold earlier this year, it closed schools and businesses and forced many New Hampshire residents to work from home or participate in remote learning. It’s been inconvenient and frustrating at times, but with a good internet connection it was possible to adapt to this changing world. For tens of thousands of New Hampshire residents without access to broadband internet, however, connecting to the “new normal” has not been easy. In fact, the pandemic has further exposed a digital divide that threatens to leave a substantial number of Granite Staters behind.

New Hampshire Electric Cooperative has long recognized that a vibrant local and state economy requires a broadband infrastructure that supports economic development, improved educational opportunities, and a modern electric grid. For several years, the Co-op has explored options to help our member-owners connect to broadband internet, especially in the more rural parts of our service territory where the need is acute. As a non-profit cooperative founded in 1939 to bring light and power to unserved areas of the state, NHEC is well positioned to once again meet the needs of our member-owners, this time by ensuring that everyone served by NHEC has access to high speed internet.

To move forward on this goal, we’re asking NHEC members to vote on proposed changes to the rules that govern how the Co-op operates. NHEC’s bylaws allow us to provide “other goods and services” to our members, but they don’t provide the flexibility our Board of Directors needs to take advantage of emerging opportunities, many of which unfold quite quickly, like accessing government funding and forging new business partnerships. In mid-September, NHEC members will have the opportunity to change NHEC’s bylaws to allow the Co-op to explore available options to ensure our members have access to the internet they need.

The NHEC Board of Directors unanimously recommends approval of the proposed bylaw changes because they believe that NHEC can provide this essential service for our members while safeguarding the viability of our core mission – delivering safe, reliable and affordable energy and energy solutions to our members.

The COVID-19 pandemic and our members’ requests for help have made clear that access to high speed internet is nearly as important today to rural New Hampshire as electricity was in 1939. Broadband internet increases property values and is an essential business tool. But in real terms, it can be the difference between a resident in a rural town starting a home business or being forced to move elsewhere for a better internet connection. It means that a 5th grader in the North Country can get the same educational opportunities as a student in another part of the state where broadband service exists. The reality is that, over time, families and businesses will be reluctant, and in most cases unwilling, to locate in towns where they don’t have access to high speed internet service.  We hope Co-op members will support the proposed bylaw changes and help us bridge the digital divide.

We are still in the early days of what will be a multi-year effort to ensure members have access to broadband internet, but what is already clear is that we need to amend the Co-op’s bylaws to go down this road. We invite you to keep up on our efforts and all the latest news on our website: www.nhec.com/broadband.

NHEC to Hold Member Vote to Further Broadband Efforts

PLYMOUTH, NH (August 13, 2020) – New Hampshire Electric Cooperative’s (NHEC) Board of Directors has voted unanimously to propose amendments to the organization’s bylaws. These proposed changes would provide NHEC with additional flexibility as it explores various options to ensure its members have access to broadband internet. NHEC members will receive ballots in September for a special vote on the proposed amendments.

As NHEC has explored various options and opportunities to expand high speed internet access, it has become apparent that the organization’s bylaws do not provide the flexibility needed to enable the Co-op to take advantage of emerging local, state, and federal funding opportunities. While NHEC can provide its members with services and goods other than electric service, like broadband, the bylaws require a lengthy approval process of the business and funding opportunities for these other goods and services.

Earlier this year NHEC held its annual election to fill vacancies in the Co-op’s Board of Directors. As part of that election process, a group of NHEC members petitioned to add a ballot question adding “facilitating access to broadband internet for members” as one of the purposes for which NHEC was formed. This ballot question fell just short of achieving the two-thirds necessary for adoption, and NHEC’s founding documents were not amended. The vote that will be held in September is intended to amend only NHEC’s bylaws and does not change the Co-op’s primary focus on providing electric service. The proposed bylaw amendments would have been necessary even if the earlier vote had passed.

NHEC members will be able to vote by mail or electronic ballot on whether the organization’s bylaws should be amended. If the proposed amendments pass, the Co-op will have additional flexibility to enable the Board of Directors to quickly explore and pursue opportunities to provide all members with access to affordable high speed internet service. These opportunities include applying for local, state, and federal funding, partnering with other organizations, creating an affiliate to provide broadband, or potentially owning and operating a broadband network. The change in the bylaws would allow NHEC to pursue these options with approval from either the Board of Directors or by a member vote, depending upon the details of the opportunity.

“As a democratically governed cooperative, NHEC’s member-owners have a direct role in setting the Co-op’s priorities,” stated Tom Mongeon, Chair of NHEC’s Board of Directors. “I hope all members will vote in this special election and support the proposed bylaw changes to give the Co-op the needed flexibility to explore all broadband options.”

“The Co-op has been working diligently to explore and evaluate every avenue available to provide members with affordable, reliable, high speed internet service,” said Steve Camerino, NHEC’s President and CEO. “Through that work it is clear that our current bylaws need to be updated to reflect the speed at which opportunities are emerging.”

A special meeting will be held at 10 A.M. on Tuesday, October 20, 2020 for members to receive the results of the vote.   Given the current restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, the meeting will be held via Zoom Webinar. Registration and login information for Co-op members will be provided with the ballot and on NHEC’s website.

The text of the proposed bylaw amendments will be posted on NHEC’s website on or before August 20, 2020 and will be included on the ballots and in ballot-related materials to be mailed to members in September.

NHEC Applies for State Funding to Expand Broadband to Members

PLYMOUTH, NH (July 8, 2020) – New Hampshire Electric Cooperative (NHEC) announced today that it has applied to the State of New Hampshire for funding to expand high speed internet access to its members in Colebrook and Lempster.

NHEC is seeking funding for the two projects from the Connecting New Hampshire Emergency Broadband Expansion Program (Connecting NH Program). The Connecting NH Program is a $50 million state initiative funded through the CARES Act – Coronavirus Relief Fund aimed at expanding high speed internet access to areas of New Hampshire that do not have broadband internet service.

As part of its ongoing efforts to make affordable, reliable, high speed internet service available to all members, NHEC submitted two applications to support the construction of fiber optic networks, one in Colebrook, and the other in Lempster. NHEC’s proposal to build broadband networks in Colebrook and Lempster is contingent on receiving support from the Connecting NH Program.

In response to its members’ critical need for high speed internet service, NHEC’s Board of Directors has authorized the organization to take steps to ensure that all of its members have access to affordable, reliable, high speed internet. NHEC’s initial step towards that larger goal is to secure funding from the Connecting NH Program to support the construction of fiber optic networks in Colebrook and Lempster. These projects would provide fiber to the premises (FTTP) with internet service options with 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) symmetrical upload and download speeds to NHEC members who are currently without broadband internet in the two towns.

“NHEC is excited to support the Governor’s broadband initiative, and we are looking forward to helping the communities we serve achieve their economic potential. For the communities NHEC serves to remain vibrant, our members need to be able to fully participate in the digital economy. We believe this initiative is an important part of community building in our service territory,” said Jeff Morrill, Vice Chair of NHEC’s Board of Directors and Chair of the Co-op’s Broadband Committee.

“NHEC’s Board of Directors and the Broadband Committee have worked expeditiously to take steps to address our members’ broadband needs,” stated Tom Mongeon, Chair of NHEC’s Board of Directors. “We are hopeful as we begin our work towards the goal of ensuring all NHEC members have access to high speed internet. This work may take several years, but these applications are a start,” continued Mongeon.

New Hampshire expects to award grants from the Connecting NH Program by mid-July, and projects must be completed by December 2020. NHEC continues to pursue funding opportunities and strategic partnerships to achieve its goal of ensuring all its members have access to high speed internet.

NHEC Board Moves to Create New Broadband Entity

PLYMOUTH, NH (June 25, 2020) – Yesterday New Hampshire Electric Cooperative’s (NHEC) Board of Directors voted unanimously to take the necessary steps to create a new separate entity to pursue funding opportunities and further the goal of providing high speed internet access to its members.

Creating this new entity is the next step in NHEC’s efforts to expand high speed internet access, and will allow for greater focus and speed on developing broadband opportunities. The entity will be charged with pursuing federal, state and local funding opportunities, and developing strategic partnerships with the singular goal of bringing high speed internet access to NHEC’s members.

Last week NHEC concluded its annual director election. This year NHEC members petitioned to add a ballot question adding “facilitating access to broadband internet for members” as one of the purposes for which the Co-op was formed. While the ballot question fell just short of achieving the two-thirds necessary for adoption, the strong support it received demonstrated member desire for NHEC to more aggressively pursue broadband.

The Board also agreed to fund the new entity with up to $1 million in initial capital to support the initiative, and appointed Jeff Morrill, Vice Chair of NHEC’s Board of Directors to spearhead the effort. In addition to his service with NHEC, Morrill leads business development and strategy for C Space, a Customer Agency. In this role, he helps companies find new ways to grow by collaborating with their customers. Morrill is an experienced manager with a track record of driving innovation and profitable growth at fortune 100 companies and new ventures.

“The Board heard our members clearly: they want their electric cooperative to do more to bring them broadband,” said Tom Mongeon, Chair of NHEC’s Board of Directors. “This important vote is the next step in moving forward to bring high speed internet to the communities NHEC serves. Jeff’s diverse and entrepreneurial skill set uniquely qualifies him to move this exciting initiative forward.”

Steve Camerino, president and CEO of NHEC said that “meeting our members’ needs is NHEC’s only focus, and the ability to access fast, reliable internet service is a critical need, now more than ever. In pursuing this initiative, we remain mindful that we must balance that need with our members’ reliance on NHEC as their electric service provider.”

“We have started on a journey and it will take several years to achieve our goal, but this is an important step,” said Jeff Morrill, Vice Chair of the Board of Directors and leader of the effort to create the new entity. “There is a lot of work to be done in a short amount of time, deadlines for the Connecting New Hampshire Emergency Broadband Expansion Program and the Rural Digital Opportunity Funds are quickly approaching and NHEC wants to make sure our members are well positioned to access any funding opportunities.”

“We thank the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative board for responding so quickly to the crying need of its members who lack fast, reliable internet service,” said Richard Knox, spokesman for a group of NHEC members who petitioned the utility to add broadband to its stated purposes. “To have the board unanimously decide to form a broadband subsidiary – only days after the initiative garnered nearly two-thirds support in the Co-op’s annual election – speaks volumes about the viability of the cooperative model. And it couldn’t come at a more crucial time.”

About New Hampshire Electric Cooperative

NHEC is a member-owned electric distribution cooperative serving 84,000 homes and businesses in 115 New Hampshire communities. Headquartered in Plymouth, NH, our business is to keep, maintain and service our 5,500 miles of energized line in order to provide our members with the best possible service.

Three Members Elected to NHEC Board; Ballot Question Fails to Pass

PLYMOUTH, NH – Members of New Hampshire Electric Cooperative (NHEC) have elected three members to the company’s Board of Directors and did not adopt a ballot question that would have changed NHEC’s founding documents to include “facilitating access to broadband internet for members” as one of the purposes for which the Co-op was formed.

Voters elected three members to the 11-member Board of Directors. A total of five members were running for election. The three candidates elected by NHEC’s members were Madeline McElaney of Plymouth, William Darcy of Benton, and Leo Dwyer of Sandwich.

Below are the full results of the 2020 Director election.

Madeline McElaney    5,137

William Darcy             4,445

Leo Dwyer                   4,393

Harry Viens                 3,663

Mark Portu                  3,485

By a vote of 4,599 (YES) to 2,539 (NO), the ballot question to change NHEC’s Certificate of Organization did not achieve the required two-thirds approval of members voting in the 2020 election.

NHEC Board of Directors Oppose Changing Co-op’s Purpose, Continue to Support Broadband

PLYMOUTH, NH (May 28, 2020) – On May 21, New Hampshire Electric Cooperative (NHEC) members began receiving their ballots for the 2020 Board of Directors election. This year, in addition to selecting three directors to join the Co-op’s 11 member board, members are also being asked to decide if the purpose for which NHEC exists should be changed.

A question has been placed on the ballot through member petition to change NHEC’s founding documents to include “facilitating access to broadband internet for members” as one of the reasons the Co-op was formed. NHEC is a democratically-controlled electric cooperative, and the participation of its members in its governance is vital. That participation includes the ability to propose changes in how NHEC is governed or conducts business.

NHEC’s Board of Directors is charged with considering member proposals and recommending to the full membership whether to support or oppose the proposed changes.  In this case, after full consideration of the proposal, the Board of Directors voted 7-3, with one abstention, to recommend that the proposed change not be approved by NHEC’s members.

NHEC, and its Board of Directors, fully support the expansion of broadband service throughout the Co-op’s service territory, and have directed NHEC’s management to facilitate and support broadband expansion. However, the Board did not support adding a new purpose to NHEC’s Certificate of Organization because of a number of concerns, including the potential to divert resources from the Co-op’s existing core focus on delivering safe, reliable, affordable electric service to its members.

NHEC has taken many steps to support the expansion of broadband over the last several years. In 2018, NHEC commissioned an analysis and business model proposal on the development of a broadband system. This proposal was judged to be too costly and would have put NHEC’s finances and electric system at risk. While the Board elected not to build a broadband network, NHEC has pursued other ways to support broadband expansion, including engaging in extensive discussions with consultants, broadband providers, municipal groups, the NH Broadband Investment Initiative, the University System of New Hampshire, and others active in the industry. The primary purpose of these efforts has been to make it as widely known as possible that NHEC supports the expansion of broadband service to all its members, and that it stands ready to facilitate, support and participate in creative efforts to make that happen.

More recently, in response to the interest expressed by members who support the ballot question, the Board of Directors created an ad hoc committee to explore if there are additional ways NHEC can further facilitate development of a broadband network by a third party in its service territory, without putting the Co-op’s finances and electric system at risk.

During the public discussion regarding the ballot petition, there has been confusion surrounding who may attach to NHEC’s utility poles, and how they do so. NHEC already allows any company, municipality, or other party to attach to its poles, including the broadband companies who are providing services to NHEC members today. This open access is required of all utility pole owners by New Hampshire law.

While the Board of Directors voted to recommend against creating a new purpose for the organization, NHEC has worked, and will continue to work, to support the expansion of broadband in the communities we serve.