A bill that would have prevented towns from using their reserved space on telephone poles to provide high-speed Internet services to the public failed to gain enough traction to get out of committee this session. That leaves an option on the table for town and municipal officials looking for creative ways to improve the state’s Internet infrastructure.
Towns are given space on privately-owned utility poles and conduits to use for any purpose without any payment, under state law. It’s a trade-off, according to Elin Katz of the state’s Office of Broadband Advocacy, since utility and telecommunications companies are allowed to place their infrastructure in public rights of way without a cost.
In other states, utility companies pay to place infrastructure on public land, and no other state gives municipalities the same special, cost-free access to reserved space on utility poles, called “municipal gain,” Katz said in a conference call with municipal leaders Thursday.
Municipal gain is used to connect traffic signals and emergency services. It began being used by cities and towns to build fast fiber-optic networks to link their own town buildings together after a 1999 ruling that allowed Manchester to do so over the objections of the Southern New England Telephone Company.
State and local officials see municipal gain one possible asset they can leverage to bring those fast internet connections — potentially 40 times faster than the current broadband definition — to homes and businesses, and to serve customers where broadband isn’t provided at all by the private sector. That could come in the form of letting private networking companies use municipal gain space free of charge in exchange for the coverage, connection speeds and pricing municipalities want.
However, a bill raised by members of the state House’s Energy and Technology committee, would have narrowed the “any purpose” language and prevented towns from transferring their municipal gain to third-party companies.
Lonnie Reed, a Democrat and chairman of the committee, said the bill didn’t have strong support from either side of the aisle. “We wanted to leave it open to the municipalities to explore it,” Reed said. But, she said, towns would have to be cautious about getting involved in Internet services. She pointed to Groton, which added Internet service to its existing municipal utility company’s offerings in 2004, but ended up racking up debt and selling the broadband business at a loss in 2012. She added that union workers had voiced support for the bill, fearing that non-union workers might be brought in to build or maintain the networks.
Verizon and New England Cable and Telecommunications Association support the bill, arguing in written testimony that if companies partner with towns to bypass costs associated with getting onto telephone poles, private companies would be discouraged from investing in infrastructure. Verizon called that an “un-level playing field.”
Yet the industry doesn’t concede that the law, even as it stands today, allows for providing these kinds Internet services over municipal gain. They call the current law “confusing” and say the change would clarify that they are not allowed.
Katz disagrees. Her office has petitioned PURA to find that the law use of municipal gain for broadband services.
Not all telecommunications companies want to limit municipal gain. Ting, a company that has partnered with municipalities to provide consumer gigabit Internet in other states, testified that affirming municipal gain would solidify Connecticut as an attractive place to build fiber networks. A group of technology companies, including Google and Netflix, whose businesses benefit from more people having faster Internet connections, also oppose the bill.
Broadband isn’t gigabit
Fast Internet is a relative term. In the days when dial-up modems screeched over telephone lines, they were capable of transferring 56,000 bits per second — that’s 56 Kbps. Broadband was defined by the FCC as approximately 4 million bits per second (4 Mbps) for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads until 2015, when it was changed to 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. The state’s broadband office is charged with facilitating access to current broadband Internet, but it also has an eye to the future — gigabit, which is 1,000 Mbps.
The Office of Broadband Advocacy was established “to facilitate the availability of broadband access to every state citizen and to increase access to and the adoption of ultra-high-speed gigabit-capable broadband networks.”
Gigabit Internet is far faster than any consumer-grade service currently available in Connecticut.
The “to every citizen” component of the broadband office’s charge comes with at least two challenges: availability and affordability.
Compared to other states, Connecticut’s not in bad shape on Internet access.
A larger share of Connecticut residents have access to some kind of Internet at home than most other states, according to Census data; Connecticut has fewer areas without broadband service than many other states, and Connecticut’s Internet speeds are among the fastest in the country, Trend CT has reported previously.
The fact that the state’s mostly covered by broadband doesn’t help folks who can’t get it at their home or business.
Despite the state’s good marks on a national curve, a report commissioned by the state’s Office of Broadband Advocacy enumerated several instances of people who couldn’t get access to high-speed Internet without paying a small fortune to tap into wires that were, in some cases, serving buildings across the street.
Trend CT reported last year that many pockets of the state do not have access to Broadband.
Affordability and the digital divide
About 76 percent of households nationally have broadband Internet access, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Connecticut, it’s about 82 percent.
But that varies greatly by income. About half of the lowest-income Connecticut households surveyed by the Census Bureau had broadband subscriptions, while almost all of the highest-earning households had broadband.
Specifically, broadband subscriptions were present in 52 percent of Connecticut households with incomes of $20,000 or less; 77 percent of households with incomes between $20,000 and $75,000 and 94 percent of households with incomes over $75,000.
Correction: This story has been changed to reflect the fact that the bill did not make it out of the Energy and Technology committee.