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Stimulus grant to improve Internet service, create jobs in NH

DURHAM - High-speed Internet service all over the state will be expanded thanks to a $44.5 million stimulus grant that could create up to a dozen local jobs.

Network New Hampshire Now, composed of several organizations led by the University of New Hampshire, was awarded the money this week.

The group will kick in $22 million of its own for a three-year project that will feature three major infrastructure improvements. Officials say the work will create almost 700 new jobs and provide faster Internet service to 12,000 businesses and 700 community institutions.

The initiative has at least one critic in FairPoint Communications, which believes some of the work could be unnecessary because it already has the infrastructure in place.

The money was part of more than $90 million awarded to New England for Internet improvements, including $47.1 million for Vermont and $1.4 million for Maine. Maine had already been awarded $25.4 million last year.

NNHN pursued the grant after groups complained about the lack of high-speed - or broadband - Internet service in the state. They included doctors in the Dartmouth region who had trouble accessing patient records online and to librarians in the North County who said residents flock to libraries because they are the only source of high-speed Internet in the community.

Granite State Democratic lawmakers Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Rep. Paul Hodes, and Rep. Carol Shea-Porter praised the award in a statement.

"This is a great day for our state," the statement read. "Network New Hampshire Now will create new opportunities for distance learning, health care delivery, and economic development, while connecting many homes and business to high speed Internet for the first time.

The first phase of construction will be a fiber-optic network that will circle the Seacoast, western New Hampshire, the North Country, and the Lakes Region. Officials said the network will make Internet faster in all 10 counties in the state.

The second part will expand connectivity to Rindge and Enfield.

Lastly, a microwave network will be built for public safety, public television, and mobile broadband communications on mountaintops across the state.

A private company, the New Hampshire Fiber Network, will be created to maintain the network. It will employ an estimated 24 employees, with 12 based at UNH.

"This project is about long-term economic development," said UNH President Mark Huddleston in a statement. "The availability and affordability of broadband supports job creation, and that benefits everyone in the state. Without it, businesses will locate elsewhere."

But FairPoint Communications spokesperson Jill Healey Wurm said the fiber-optic network work "could be unnecessary" because of existing infrastructure. FairPoint operates an existing high-speed network that reaches more than 34,000 homes and businesses across the state.

She said the company has not reviewed Network New Hampshire Now's plan.

"We share the same goals of trying to expand broadband Internet," she said.

Network New Hampshire Now includes the University System of New Hampshire, New Hampshire Public Television, the Community College System of New Hampshire, New Hampshire FastRoads, West Central New Hampshire Network, Southwest Regional Planning Commission, Keene Municipal Broadband Committee, Monadnock Economic Development Corporation, New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority, the state departments of safety and transportation, and the New Hampshire National Guard, among others.