This article appeared in the Dec. 20, 2011, edition of the Ledger-Transcript.
In an era of booming online commerce, local businesses struggle to connect
By Jessica Camille Aguirre
Ken Callahan has been selling used books since 1975. Callahan and Company Booksellers specializes in out-of-print hunting and fishing guides, and has historically relied on mail-order service for the bulk of its profits. A few years ago, Callahan’s business model began to buckle. The things he had always done — going to the post office to look up zip codes, for example — began to take a painstakingly long time. But it wasn’t because he was slowing down. It was because the world around him was speeding up. In a world of fiber-optic Internet connections and 4G networks, Callahan was still using dial-up. And he needed something faster.
“I spent huge amounts of time, wasted time, just trying to get a signal,” Callahan said recently. “And time is money.”
Callahan lives on Route 123 in Sharon, a hilly town where inconsistent Internet coverage has the capacity to give small business owners heart palpitations.
Cable service is unavailable throughout the town; DSL was also not an option until about a year ago, when the service provider FairPoint activated DSL coverage for about 50 percent of residents, according to Sharon Administrative Assistant Chet Bowles.
It’s a dilemma that plagues many towns in the Monadnock region, whose sparse populous and uneven terrain make infrastructure for high-speed Internet a dubious investment for providers. In an economy increasingly driven by web transactions and businesses with an online presence, outmoded connections are putting local business owners at a disadvantage.
According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, the Internet is the source people rely on most heavily for information about local businesses. Holiday shopping trends are a good indication of consumers’ shifting habits: This year, Cyber Monday’s online sales were 29.3 percent greater than in-store purchases on Black Friday, according to Coremetrics, a research firm owned by I.B.M. that tracks online sales. The market research firm Comscore reported total Cyber Monday sales of $1.2 billion.
But according to Bowles, FairPoint’s DSL coverage does not reach the Route 123 corridor, so Sharon residents’ only choices are satellite or microwave — the latter attained by erecting large receivers on their roofs.
About three months ago, Ken Callahan sprung for a microwave connection. The installation fee, $450, was astronomical compared to what a DSL or cable provider would charge in their service area — $50 to $100. But Callahan hasn’t looked back.
“I’m not sure the service is as good as it would be with DSL...it’s affected by the weather. But overall, the difference has been tremendous,” Callahan says.
The era of high costs and esoteric alternatives may be coming to an end, though, as state and privately funded initiatives to put New Hampshire online gain traction. Network New Hampshire Now, an initiative comprised of public and private entities throughout the state and administered by the University of New Hampshire, will bring high-speed internet, wireless and fiber to un-served and underserved areas in ten counties, among them Cheshire and Hillsborough Counties.
NNHN is funded by $44.5 million in economic stimulus money and $22 million in private and in-kind support. Project contractors are in the process of laying 470 miles of middle-mile fiber for a core broadband network. A subsidiary of NNHN, New Hampshire Fast Roads, LLC, is also laying last-mile fiber, which will allow far-flung customers in 35 communities to connect to the middle-mile network.
Scott Valcourt, principal investigator for Network New Hampshire Now, says he tells business owners to prepare for the high-speed connections that are coming, because residents spending more time online may be tempted by out-of-state competition. “Once this network goes online, there will be 15 nations other than the United States that will be marketing to customers via broadband in New Hampshire,” Valcourt said, adding that “unless [New Hampshire business owners] are ready to take on that market, [out-of-state competitors] will be ahead of us.”
In Mason, frustrated residents have founded the Mason Broadband Exploratory Committee to determine ways to fill the gaps in its Internet service.
“If you are sufficiently rich, you could get yourself broadband coverage,” said committee member Stephen Hoffman recently. “But wireless networks don’t work all that well around granite and trees.” According to Hoffman, small portions of the town are covered by wireless broadband, cable, or DSL, but high-quality coverage is not widespread. Both Hoffman and his wife conduct business at home: he is a technology consultant and she works remotely for a large-concern corporation. “It doesn’t look particularly good to clients on the other end when I can’t get or hold a connection,” Hoffman says.
The town of Rindge is slated to be one of the first beneficiaries of the Fast Roads project. Unfortunately, like with Sharon’s DSL, not all residents will be able to upgrade.
“It’s not going to provide coverage for everyone,” Carlotta Pini said recently. Pini is the Rindge town administrator, and a member of the Broadband Stakeholders Group for the Southwest Region Planning Commission, Rindge Telecommunications Committee, and the Board of Directors for Fast Roads. “It’s going to serve one census block, essentially the south-western part of town,” Pini explained.
But town officials are working to address residents’ needs; Rindge has equipment for the Internet company Granite Connections installed in its bell tower.
According to Pini, the Planning Board’s master plan includes an economic development chapter that calls for 100 percent Internet connectivity in the next one to two years.
“We’ve surveyed residents and business owners and we have identified access to high speed Internet as critical to our economic development initiative,” Pini said. “It’s as critical as having highways and utilities.”
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