Utilities and Big ISP Keep Northwest Connecticut Disconnected

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Since 2014, rural towns in northwest Connecticut have been planning to build a high-speed internet network with private operators, using fiber optic cable and utility poles, reported the Hartford Business Journal. Major ISPs oppose this project, labeling it “illegal,” but municipalities and their allies contend those same companies won’t roll out affordable gigabit-speed internet fast enough, particularly in poor or rural areas.

To make matters worse, last year the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) ruled that state law, which allows cities and towns to occupy their legally reserved “municipal gain” space on utility poles “for any purpose,” did not permit them to install fiber optic cable, citing unfair competition.

 In an unusual move, the state Office of Consumer Counsel appealed PURA’s decision in state Superior Court, reported the Journal.  

Both organizations must schedule oral arguments in August per judge’s orders.

Another attempt at solving the matter, Senate Bill 846 — which has had several iterations — would allow cities and towns to use their free gain space to build out internet networks in partnership with third-parties. The bill never reached a vote, and according to the Town of Manchester IT Director Jack McCoy, the bill’s failure will further hamper municipal-broadband efforts, which are, “technologically and financially punishing” for residents.

As a workaround, a coalition of 25 northwestern Connecticut communities, known as Northwest Connect, is pursuing the creation of a roughly $100 million high-speed fiber network. The plan is to form a utility and build a solar farm plus a broadband network. According to Northwest Connect president, Kim Maxwell, the hope is that nearby towns will follow their lead, if approved, to form a regional cooperative.

Incumbent service providers warn that town governments don’t have the money to operate in the telecom market, citing an ISP launched in Connecticut in the early 2000s that cost taxpayers $27 million in debt, reported the Journal.

June 25, 2019

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