Brian Foucher traveled some 300 days a year for business. When the Harrisville, N.H., resident was home, he telecommuted to meetings around the globe, but found his Internet connection so poor his employer became frustrated. With a wife and young family at home, that kind of work life was quickly growing old.
Foucher’s initiative to solve his own Internet problems eventually evolved into a business, WiValley, Inc. of Keene, which solved connectivity issues not only for Foucher, but for other Monadnock residents as well.
Going The ‘Last Mile’
After successful pilots connecting several dozen rural customers, Foucher launched WiValley in 2008 with seed money from investors, some of whom were the recipients of connectivity from those pilot projects.
Today, WiValley has installations in some 40 towns in southwestern New Hampshire, as well as six communities in eastern Vermont and five in northwestern Massachusetts.
Depending on the topography, WiValley’s systems have upload and download speeds up to 15 Mbps for residential customers and up to Gigabyte speeds for businesses – far surpassing dial-up connections, satellite and DSL.
Foucher is quick to point out, however, that WiValley can’t solve everyone’s broadband issues because the technology to get higher speeds from fixed wireless signals requires line-of-sight connections to receivers.
“The challenge with our technology is the land, the hills and valleys,” says Foucher. “The amount of trees is the other major factor. We might be able to connect one person, but their next-door neighbor might be behind a stand of trees that absorb the signals.”
Foucher’s company isn’t the only firm tackling New Hampshire’s so-called “Digital Divide.” Like WiValley, RadiusNorth Communications in New Ipswich also provides wireless broadband to towns in the Monadnock Region. The regions north and west of Concord also have slow Internet service or lack it entirely. North Country Internet Access in Berlin and the Wireless LINC project, a large-scale fiber optic network under development through a partnership between the Northern Community Investment Corporation and Littleton Industrial Development Corporation, are just two providers bringing broadband to the state’s northern tier. Major carriers like FairPoint Communications and Comcast also have rural projects underway throughout the state.
Politics And PrioritiesFoucher’s company is hampered by more than just hills and trees. He says WiValley’s real hurdle is the New Hampshire state budget. It’s not that he is at loggerheads with government officials over zoning issues or regulations – Foucher says he has good working relationships at the state house and served on the state’s Telecommunications Planning & Development Advisory Committee. It’s really a matter of priorities.
“Neighboring states with different politics are putting a lot more investment into public-private partnerships to solve the last mile,” says Foucher, referring to the final leg for delivering connectivity from a communications provider to a customer.
He points to the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, which in March approved $3.6 million for last-mile installations, as an example.
Carol Miller, director of broadband technologies for the New Hampshire Division of Economic Development, says the state is very active working with groups on broadband efforts, but support is largely through grants rather than specific funds from the budget.
“Virtually every community has pockets where there is no connectivity, especially in the North Country,” she says. “We have a priority to first identify the unserved then the underserved.”
For example, the state and the University of New Hampshire are working on the Broadband Mapping and Planning Program, an initiative to identify areas across the state that lack broadband and how to solve some of those issues by engaging providers, communities and residents.
“The big message is everybody has to participate,” says Miller. “There are no magic wands. We do want everyone connected, but there is still a long way to go. We all need to work together. ”
Both Foucher and Miller say the state is looking to the private sector to solve some of rural New Hampshire’s broadband issues.
Foucher says this outlook worries him. He says he’s concerned that New Hampshire will become under-served without greater direct financial investment by the state government.
“In five years’ time, 3 Mbps from DSL is not going to be enough. In many businesses, 3 Mbps is not enough now,” Foucher says.
Miller, however, says she doesn’t see New Hampshire’s broadband connectivity losing ground compared to other states. “New Hampshire is a high-tech state and we rate fairly well for connectivity. I don’t see us lagging behind because we’re actually well ahead of the curve.”
Despite these challenges, Foucher says he wants to grow WiValley, both in terms of size and scope. He’s currently looking for more contract installers, and the firm is considering adding phone services through VoIP technology, using the Internet to carry digitized phone signals.
“Our focus is not fiber-to-the-home, but fiber-to-the-neighborhood then redeploy wirelessly to residents. You can develop wireless solutions that handle everything else,” says Foucher. “It’s the only way that makes sense going forward.”