The Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority ruled a few weeks ago that municipalities cannot use utility poles to build municipal internet networks that serve homes and businesses. Utility poles are columns that support overhead cables, whether electric or fiber-optic. Typically different users share the same utility poles, and in places where utilities are run overhead, access to them is critical in order to build an internet network.
While some utility poles are owned by municipalities, a significant portion of utility poles are owned by electric utilities, cable and communications companies. In Connecticut, municipal access to those poles has been guaranteed through a statute dating nearly a century ago and updated recently. However, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority ruling overturns that, arguing that allowing municipalities to use this access in order to build such a network would in effect give them an unfair advantage in comparison with other competitors. This ruling comes at a time that municipalities in Connecticut are looking to build their own networks.
This is not the first time a state makes a decision that makes it harder to build municipal broadband networks. There are 21 states where building such a network is prohibited by law. This landscape is the result of the oversize influence the big communications and cable have over this market. But the current market structure has not succeeded in yielding the kind of internet infrastructure we need. The United States lags far behind other competitor countries in the quality and price of its internet infrastructure.
Connecticut in particular urgently needs faster and more affordable internet access if it wishes to stay economically competitive. In New York, 8.5% of the state’s population had access to 1 Gig internet, in Massachusetts it was 11% and in Rhode Island a whopping 97.6% in 2014. In Connecticut only 3.4% of the population had access to such speeds, ranking 32 out of 56 states and territories.
For Connecticut – and the rest of the region – to keep up with global competition, access to fast, affordable internet infrastructure will need to be greatly expanded. Without state and municipal proactive planning and investment it is hard to see how such expansion can happen. In response to the ruling, the Office of Consumer Council is considering appealing the ruling in state court. Another option for municipalities would be to lay the network underground, where they control access. Either way the municipalities, and the state, should not let the ruling stop them from exploring different business models. The future of the state depends on it.