From Rural Electrification to Broadband Use

In the twentieth century, UNH Cooperative Extension helped usher in the electrical era. Today, it’s behind another great transformation. 

New Hampshire holds the title to many “firsts” in the nation. It boasts the first presidential primary. The first American to travel in space, Alan Shepard, hailed from Derry. Of the 13 original colonies, New Hampshire was first to declare its independence from England, a full six months before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

In the 1930s, New Hampshire led the nation in the number of electrified farms. By 1935, New Hampshire had more wired farms than any other state, including farm-rich California. Despite this, in rural parts of New Hampshire and the rest of the nation, electricity was not widespread.

That would soon change. And Cooperative Extension would be a driving force behind the change.

In 1936, the Rural Electrification Act put federal monies behind the installation of electrical distribution systems. At the time, electricity was commonplace in urban areas, but it was largely unavailable in rural areas. The feds realized that while the agricultural community would be critical to the success of rural electrification efforts, convincing that community of electricity’s many benefits might be a challenge.

The Rural Electrification Authority created fact sheets and posters that touted the promises of electricity. But to get the message into the hands of those who needed it, the Authority sought a distribution network that had an established presence in rural areas and strong ties to the agricultural community. Enter Extension.

The Authority called on Cooperative Extension in every state to help farmers understand what electricity would mean for their operations. M.L. Wilson, the director of Extension work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noted in a letter to Extension directors nationwide in 1941 that it was up to the Extension specialists to convey how new electric machines and appliances could reduce labor, cut costs, and increase productivity.

During their visits to New Hampshire farms, UNH Extension specialists held up electric feed grinders, brooders, and milk coolers, among other new electric inventions, as potentially beneficial items.

Several farmers decided to power up. Forrest A. Smith of Gilford was one of them. He installed an electric milk cooler that allowed him to expand his dairy herd. He also installed an electric pump, making it possible to add a bathroom and hot water in his kitchen.

Another farmer purchased an electric motor and constructed a saw rig that enabled him to clean up debris left in his pasture in the wake of the 1938 hurricane that ravaged parts of the state. Other farmers added electricity to hen houses in order to add light during the dark months. This increased hens’ egg production, giving poultry farmers more eggs to sell. For many, the additional egg revenue paid the monthly electric bills.

Electricity changed the lives of New Hampshire’s farm women. Will H. Call of Barnstead told his Extension agent he had expanded his operation and income as result of powering up. And, he noted, “Labor-saving household equipment will give Mrs. Call more time to help with poultry and the garden.”

Extension agent C. J. Ahern, writing to UNH Cooperative Extension Director J.C. Kendall, observed that he had seen “many instances where electric appliances have cut down the many arduous tasks that previously confronted the farm woman in carrying out her household duties.”

By 1945, most farms in the United States—about 83 percent—were electrified. By 1966, sales of electricity in New Hampshire were more than three times what they had been in 1948.

It was a transformative period of time that forever changed the face of New Hampshire agriculture and rural America.

Fast Forward

Jump ahead to the age of big data. Today, high-speed Internet is common in metropolitan and suburban areas. Consumers there have grown accustomed to fast broadband connections in their homes, at their workplaces, in airports, cafés, and hotel rooms, on buses, and even in waiting rooms. But in less populous areas, access to broadband can be spotty.

In its 2010 national broadband plan, the Federal Communications Commission noted that despite the technology’s spread, there was still insufficient access to broadband for many Americans.

“Broadband is the difference between growth and stagnation,” says Molly Donovan, UNH Cooperative Extension community development specialist and leader of Extension’s broadband team. “In the business community, broadband connectivity is an absolute necessity for those who want a competitive advantage, and it’s equally as important in the education, health, and municipal sectors.”

Donovan and colleagues Shane Bradt, Charlie French, and André Garron are behind an effort to expand use of high‑speed Internet across the Granite State. They are part of the New Hampshire Broadband Mapping & Planning Program (NHBMPP), a multi-year project created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment of 2009 to encourage the adoption of broadband. 

The UNH Cooperative Extension team serves as the training and technical assistance arm of the project, helping New Hampshire businesses, communities, and institutions understand the benefits of broadband and how they can better use it to increase efficiency, enhance communications, and improve their bottom line. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, for every dollar invested in broadband infrastructure, the economy benefits from a nearly $3.00 return.

Donovan says Extension was selected as the training and technical assistance partner because of its presence across the state and deep connections to New Hampshire communities.

Based on the results of a 2012 Granite State Poll, in New Hampshire, access to broadband varies based on population. The poll revealed that about 62 percent of residents in the western part of New Hampshire have broadband access, while about 83 percent of those in the central part of the state have access.

NHBMMP project partners from UNH and regional planning commissions are currently mapping broadband availability in the state to pinpoint these numbers. Their findings will shed light on how it can be made more widely available in the future.

“Disparities in availability can mean disparities in economic growth, educational opportunity, community vitality, public health and safety, and quality of life,” says Charlie French, head of the UNH Cooperative Extension Community and Economic Development team.

“Broadband is integral to the state and its regions’ capacity to improve their economic future,” says French.

Donovan says the team is focused on teaching the advantages and opportunities broadband brings to the economy, education, healthcare, and municipal government.

She notes that while the technology has changed, the work is much the same as it was in the 1930s when her predecessors helped usher in the bold new invention of electricity. Only today, New Hampshire is in a global market, and “organizations know they need to reach beyond the borders of the state to succeed.”


—Holly Young

UNH Cooperative Extension Community & Economic Development

New Hampshire Broadband Mapping and Planning Program