Problem With Poles In Connecticut: Petitioning PURA For Precision

In Connecticut, local municipalities want to take advantage of the state’s unique “Municipal Gain Space” but invoking the law has not been hassle-free. As towns try to place fiber-optic cables on this reserved section of utility poles, questions arise that need answering. 

Giving Towns Some Room On The Poles

The Connecticut statute grants state departments and municipalities the right to use space on all of the approximately 900,000 utility poles sitting in the municipal Rights-of-Way (ROW), regardless of ownership. One of the state's electric providers and either Verizon or Frontier jointly own most of the poles.

The law was created in the early 1900s for telegraph wiring and as new technologies and wire types evolved, a number of law suits ensued. Cities and state entities usually won, preserving the space, but the process of getting attachment agreements approved became more burdensome and expensive. In 2013, the state legislature amended the law so municipalities could access to the space “for any use.” The change opened the door for hanging fiber for municipal networks and partnering with private providers.

A Little Help Here...

In theory, it seems simple but in practice, pole administrators - Electric Distribution Companies (EDCs) and telephone companies - and government entities need guidance. As communities across the state band together to improve local connectivity and try to use the law, they have uncovered its flaws. It has potential, but the Municipal Gain Space law needs sharpening to be an effective tool. Its application rules are not sufficiently defined and a number of technical issues are not addressed. 

The state’s Public Utility Regulatory Agency (PURA) has the authority and responsibility to establish rules to settle the problems with the law. Deploying a municipal network is no small task; the Office of Consumer Counsel (OCC) and the State Broadband Office (SBO) hope to simplify the process for local communities. They have petitioned PURA to clarify the Municipal Gain Space rules. In their formal petition, they ask PURA to investigate and remove barriers that interfere with the “timely and efficient use of Municipal Gain.” Read the petition at the PURA website.

Lack Of Direction Jeopardizes Local Projects

We spoke with Elin Swanson Katz, Consumer Counsel, and Joseph Rosenthal, Principal Attorney from the OCC. Bill Vallee, the state's Broadband Policy and Program Coordinator joined the conversation. They described how a lack of direction for pole administrators and other gaps in the Municipal Gain Space law negatively impacts deployment for municipalities that decide to employ it. From inception to implementation, communities find themselves confronting some common questions.

A city may decide to invest in a project and use the Municipal Gain Space law to determine a route for their fiber-optic network cables.  As they move forward, they find that there are a number of unresolved questions, beginning with where on the pole the Municipal Gain Space should be located. Often the other entities that are using the poles have not reserved space for a municipality’s unrestricted use.

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Once they answer the important issue of where on a pole a cable belongs, the next question is who pays to rearrange the existing wires so the new cable can be attached? For example, if a telephone company hung its wire but failed to reserve the space for the town to use later, who should pay for the make-ready costs when the town decides to use its statutory space under the Municipal Gain Space rule? How should make-ready costs, which can make or break a municipal fiber project, be allocated?

Time is critical; that holds true in the telecommunications industry in a number of ways. New rules would also establish who would be responsible for assessing the condition of the poles to expedite projects that depend on pole availability. Scheduling trucks and technicians from the various entities using the poles, fragile financing schedules, deployment delays that cause subscription losses, are only a few factors impacted by timing that affect the viability of a public or private network.

Limiting Competition With “An Offer You Can’t Refuse”

As communities have moved forward with fiber projects, some have entered into agreements with pole owners whose draft pole attachment agreements dictate the terms. Local communities may feel they have little choice, especially if they depend on critical funding tied to a tight deadline.

Some pole attachment agreements violate the law because it includes language that restricts municipalities’ use of the Municipal Gain Space. By limiting the space to “government use,” pole owners are able to prevent partnerships between municipalities and other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who may wish to provide services to businesses or residents via publicly owned infrastructure. Such a restriction eliminates a range of options for local communities who may not have the ability to operate and maintain a fiber network alone. Incumbent providers are using their pole attachment agreements to stifle and delay municipal networks, including those that involve private partners, as a way to limit competition.

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Local communities must go out of their way to avoid these restrictive agreements if they want to preserve their ability to one day use their fiber for something other than a "government use."

For example, Somers had been awarded state funding to connect to the state education network but refused to sign the pole attachment agreement from Frontier. The resulting delay almost caused them to lose the state grant and they eventually engineered the network to avoid Frontier poles so they would not have to restrict away their Municipal Gain Space.

As part of the petition, the OCC and SBO are asking PURA to develop rules that could be used to build a standard agreement between municipalities and the telecommunications companies or EDCs that own the poles.

Washing Away The Mud For Everyone

In their June 21st news release, the OCC emphasized that the Municipal Gain Space rules affect a number of entities:

Other interested stakeholders in a PURA proceeding regarding the municipal gain would likely include the Single Pole Administrators (the two Electric Distribution Companies), the incumbent telephone companies, the several cable operators, long-term infrastructure investors, the diverse set of utilities, municipalities, investors, other entities that already engage in pole attachments, and Connecticut business and technology promotion groups seeking high-speed internet access.

"The process is daunting and in some circumstances clear as mud...That whole process needs to be clarified," Katz told the Hartford Courant in June. If PURA agrees, the Municipal Gain Space may soon be sharpened and ready to break new ground for Connecticut communities.

Broadband Communities Magazine Spotlights Study on Rural Electric Cooperatives

In the 1930s, rural communities joined together through electric cooperatives to bring electricity to their homes and businesses. Today, rural electric co-ops may have the power to bring Internet access to these same communities.

A recent Broadband Communities Magazine article highlights this potential for rural electric co-ops. In the article, Dr. Robert Yadon and D. Bracken Ross of the Digital Policy Institute at Ball State University explain the results of their recent study. 

Electric Co-Ops as Regional Networks

Yadon and Bracken looked into 30 private sector Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) providers in Indiana and 16 rural electric co-ops providing Internet service around the nation. After predicting engineering costs, the researchers highlighted a dozen Indiana rural electric co-ops that could serve as regional hubs of connectivity.

The researchers developed a specific process for rural electric co-ops interested in providing Internet access. In summary, they propose:

“For REMCs [Rural Electric Membership Cooperatives], the process begins with a commitment to a middle-mile, smart grid fiber deployment connecting their substations, followed by a phased-approach business model with strategic growth focusing on last-mile customer density. Exploring local business partnership underwriting opportunities, examining the use of an efficient regional network design and combining multiple federal funding programs are the keys to rural broadband deployment success down the road.”

We don’t necessarily agree with these proposals. Our Christopher Mitchell has written many times about how middle mile cannot solve the last mile problems. The incremental approach based on customer density can repeat some of the same problems we’ve seen with cable and telephone companies - skipping over the most rural and smallest localities. Relying on federal funds is not always necessary. In fact, the researchers point to the success of a co-op that continued on after being denied a federal grant.

Pioneering Electric Co-Ops are Models

Yadon and Bracken pointed to the incremental approach taken by several rural electric co-ops, particularly Co-Mo Electric. The researchers noted how Co-Mo Electric was able to build out the network overtime to the rest of their electric service area. 

Co-Mo Connect, part of Co-Mo Electric, provides some of the fastest Internet service in the nation to rural Missouri. On MuniNetworks.org, we've covered Co-Mo Connect’s journey to connectivity. After being denied a federal stimulus grant, in 2012 the co-op forged ahead and built a next-generation network. Chris spoke with the previous General Manager of Co-Mo Connect, Randy Klindt, in Community Broadband Bits Episode 140. Klindt now works for Ozarks Electric Cooperative as they deveop their own FTTH project. 

Local Entities With Vision

Although Yadon and Bracken’s recommendations are not quite spot on, one of their final statements is compelling:

“Only those local entities with a vision and a local, vested interest in providing a long-term solution for ubiquitous broadband service to rural areas will succeed.”

Rural electric cooperatives need to be focused on the future of the community. The recent ILSR report, “Re-Member-ing the Electric Cooperative,” from our co-workers in the Energy Democracy Initiative underscores how rural electric cooperatives have so much potential if they only engage and activate their memberships. Rural areas need to part of the new economies (from renewable energy to telecommuting), and rural electric cooperatives need to realize their potential.

Westminster Muni Network Expanding

Marking another big step forward, the mayor and Common Council of Westminster, Maryland (pop. 18,000) have hired a telecommunications, utility and government contracting firm to continue building the first two phases of the Westminster Fiber Network (WFN).

City Hires SMC

Westminster expects to complete this construction in 2017, providing Gigabit per second (Gbps) connectivity to an additional 2,700 homes and businesses in the western part of the community, according to a city news release. Cost of this phase is undetermined $21 million, Westminster marketing consultant Jason Stambaugh told us; the city will issue general obligation bonds to fund the entire cost of the network the expansion.

One year after Westminster celebrated lighting its municipal fiber network, the city hired SMC, Inc. to construct the expansion. Westminster is partnering with Toronto-based Ting to provide retail services via the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. 

“This expansion of the WFN is an important milestone and demonstrates the City’s continued commitment to revolutionize Internet access, bring local jobs, and drive innovation that will enable the community to thrive.”

Westminster began building its municipal fiber network in October, 2014, and entered into a public-private partnership with Ting in February, 2015. The city owns the infrastructure and Ting leases fiber to bring Internet service to businesses and residents. Westminster began its municipal fiber network, spending about $1.8 million to get the project started in a residential retirement community and an industrial park. 

Bonds Back Fiber Network  

Because of high demand, the City Council voted to expand the municipal fiber project, approving a $21 million general obligation bond agreement with SunTrust Bank.  

As MuniNetworks.org reported last December:

“According to Common Council President Robert Wack, the bank’s willingness to buy the bonds came in part as a result of the proven high demand for fast, reliable, affordable, symmetrical fiber service in Westminster.”  

Although the city doesn’t have hard numbers on the impact of the pilot program, there have been plenty of positive anecdotal reports, Stambaugh told us. He noted: 

“One of our local businesses, Open Professional Group, has said that the Internet service he's able to purchase over the network through Ting is allowing his firm to save money on their monthly Internet bills and has drastically increased productivity. He's also noted that he's extremely proud of his Internet speeds. When clients come in for a visit, he'll often do a speed test to show off his new Gigabit connection.”

Currently, Westminster is in the midst of completing engineering and going through a competitive bidding process on the project, Stambaugh told us.  

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More on Westminster Fiber 

We've published numerous stories on Westminster’s municipal fiber network. Just last month, we highlighted a Carroll County Times report about Westminster officials and the city’s fiber network partner, Ting, holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the first Ting Makerspace, a service featuring 3-D scanning technology. 

You can also learn more about the WFN by listening to episode #100 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Our Chris Mitchell talked with Dr. Robert Wack, the man who spearheaded the plan in Westminster. Learn more details about the partnership between Westminster and Ting by downloading our report, The Secrets Behind Partnerships to Improve Internet Access.

UPDATE: While the exact cost of this phase is yet to be determined, City Council documents reflect that SMC was hired to complete phase 1 and begin phase 2. The firm will be paid approximately $3.8 million. Strambaugh stressed that this expansion to 2,700 properties is a substantial percentage of the community’s 7,000 premises.

Community Connections - Westminster & Ting: The How and the Why

More and more cities are turning to public-private partnerships (PPP's) in building Internet networks that meet the needs of 21st century homes and businesses. If a city builds its own fiber and leases it to a trusted partner, they can negotiate for activities that benefit the public good, like universal access. 

In this video Christopher Mitchell interviews Dr. Robert Wack with Westminster, Maryland and Elliot Noss, CEO of Tucows, the parent of Ting. The two talk about their revolutionary public-private fiber partnership.

The video outlines a basic economic principle: "Ownership equals control, and control means leverage." If you don't have that leverage (such as ownership of infrastructure) you won't get a good deal from your private ISP.

Noss has long been active in preserving and expanding the open Internet. Dr. Wack is a city council member and driving force behind the open access fiber network partnership. 

For a much more detailed look at public-private partnerships, check out our guide: "Successful Strategies for Broadband Public-Private Partnerships". The term "public-private partnership" has been muddied in the past. The report clears up the confusion: public entities and private companies must both have "skin in the game" to balance the risks and amplify the rewards.

 

I-Net Beginning to Blossom in Greenfield, WI

Greenfield city officials and school administrators recently agreed to cooperatively build a fiber-optic institutional network (I-Net). The Milwaukee suburb of about 37,000 expects to trim thousands of dollars from its annual network bill and bring its students, teachers, and local government up to speed.

Dig Now, Save Now

Just like many communities across the U.S., Greenfield realized that it was paying too much to connect its community anchor institutions (CAIs) to the Internet. In April 2015, Greenfield school district approved a bandwidth upgrade with a private provider that would cost the schools $45,588 annually. Within half a year, they had already hit their new bandwidth limit. In November 2015, they needed to upgrade again to the tune of $119,141 per year. 

With classrooms and public institutions demanding increasingly higher bandwidth, local officials decided to ditch the incumbent providers to build a fast, affordable, reliable network in the coming semester. Their investment will allow them to make long-term budgeting decisions, direct more money toward classroom expenses, and use technology to offer rich educational experiences. 

Construction started in June on the fiber-optic network that will connect Greenfield school district, neighboring Whitnall school district, Alverno College, and Greenfield public safety buildings. With installation slated to finish by summer’s end, local institutions expect immediate savings. 

Financial Terms

The City of Greenfield, Greenfield School District, and Whitnall School District all applied for state trust fund loans through the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands of Wisconsin (BCPL). 

Michael Neitzke, Greenfield’s mayor, expects the town to repay it share - a $700,000 loan from BCPL - within 10 years thanks to annual telecommunications savings. The school districts anticipate even shorter repayment periods. Officials at Greenfield School District expect to pay off their loan within 4 years, according to Superintendent Lisa Elliot.  The School District of Whitnall authorized a $440,000 loan from BCPL with a 5-year repayment term at an interest rate of 2.5 percent. 

More Than Just Money

Greenfield hopes its network will impact the community beyond the balance sheet. In addition to blazing fast download speeds, fiber-optic networks feature faster upload speeds that shorten data transfer times, opening the door to a variety of indirect benefits for public safety and education. Greenfield Now quoted Nietzke, who said: 

“Benefiting most in local government are police and paramedics... Police especially depend heavily on getting data and lots of it. Based on the increasing need of law enforcement, an upgrade of this kind would have been made, anyway.”

The school districts are also excited for new possibilities. Greenfield and Whitnall will consider sharing the costs of virtual classrooms, where students in either district could attend classes via the Internet. Their partnership with the city will allow the school districts to save substantially on telecommunications costs; school officials can direct funds toward educating students, maintaining infrastructure, or other important necessities.

Ottawa, Kansas, and Monticello, Illinois, are two other communities where schools and local government have teamed up to save public dollars while simultaneously obtaining better connectivity. Schools can use federal E-rate funds to pay for the cost of Internet infrastructure investment, reducing the overall cost for deployment. Money saved by lowering telecommunications costs can later be re-invested. When a city strategically locates fiber-optic rings, they can later expand their network to serve other CAIs, businesses, or residents.

Regardless of how far Greenfield eventually takes their network, these first steps will result in significant cost reduction and a valuable publicly owned asset.

In Minnesota, Alexandria Connects Businesses - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 210

When the cable and telephone companies refused to offer dial-up Internet service 20 years ago in Alexandria, Minnesota, the municipal utility stepped up and made it available. For years, most everyone in the region used it to get online. Now, the utility has focused its telecommunications attention on making fiber-optic telecommunications services available to local businesses.

Alexandria's ALP Utilities General Manager Al Crowser joins us this week to explain what they have done and why. Like us, Al is a strong believer that local governments can be the best provider of essential services to local businesses and residents.

In the show, we talk some history and also about the difference between local customer service and that from a larger, more distant company. He discusses how they have paid for the network and where net income goes. And finally, we talk about their undergrounding project.

Read the transcript from this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

The Secrets Behind Partnerships to Improve Internet Access

Publication Date: 
July 14, 2016
Author(s): 
Patrick Lucey
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

placeholderA growing number of U.S. cities have broken up monopoly control of the Internet marketplace locally. They're promoting entrepreneurship while giving residents and businesses real choice in how they connect and reach new audiences. They've put a new wrinkle in an old model: the public-private partnership.

"Communities desperately need better Internet access, but not all local governments are bold enough to 'go it alone'", says Christopher Mitchell with Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "Here, we've outlined a few remarkable cities who have demonstrated how smart strategies are helping them help themselves."

A city that builds its own fiber and leases it to a trusted partner can negotiate for activities that benefit the public good, like universal access. It may even require (as Westminster, Maryland did) that the partner ISP have real human beings answer the phone to solve a customer's problems.

The term "public-private partnership" has been muddied in the past. This report clears up the confusion: public entities and private companies must both have "skin in the game" to balance the risks and amplify the rewards.

Inside The Report

  • Partnerships in broadband have never been in greater vogue. Communities are realizing they don’t have to build it entirely themselves to get the benefits of gig networks in Chattanooga or Google cities.
  • The report features the revolutionary Westminster/Ting partnership and notes its first copycat: Cruzio and the city of Santa Cruz. These networks are groundbreaking in terms of offering a "third way" for communities to join the ranks of gigabit cities.
  • This report offers a roadmap for cities and outlines the important questions that need to be asked and answered in order to find the right partner with the right priorities for each community.

WATCH THE VIDEO: Westminster & Ting: The How and the Why

DOWNLOAD THE REPORT

Get Your Applications Ready For Minnesota's $35 Million

The Land of 10,000 Lakes wants to become The Land of 10,000 Lakes With High-Speed Internet Access. 

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) will begin taking applications for the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program on July 22, 2016. The program offers a total of $35 million in funding for projects in unserved and underserved areas. The application submission period closes on October 3, 2016.

The Grant Program

The Border-to-Border program will pay for up to 50 percent of project development costs, awarding a maximum of $5 million per grant. This round of funding sets aside $5 million specifically for underserved areas, and $500,000 will be set aside for areas that contain a significant proportion of low-income households. Officials estimate this year's $35 million in funding will impact an additional 2,000 Minnesotans.

Since May 2014, the Border-to-Border program has provided over $30 million in assistance to over 30 projects throughout Minnesota. This latest funding opportunity brings the total funding up to $65.4 million. It is the largest funding appropriation for the program to date.

Still Not Enough

The Governor’s Task Force on Broadband estimated that Minnesota needs $900 million to $3.2 billion of investment to bring high-speed Internet access to all in the state. The latest funding for the Border-to-Border program, although more than past years, is still not enough. Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith stated:

“Broadband isn’t nice, it’s necessary if we want Minnesota’s economy to work for everyone, everywhere in the state. This new investment will connect businesses to customers, students to learning opportunities, and patients to their doctors. This is an important investment but we have a long way to go...”

Learn more about the Border-to-Border program and our suggestions for how to improve it by downloading our May 2016 policy brief Minnesota's Broadband Grant Program: Getting the Rules Right

To learn more about the program or to apply visit the DEED website here. Applications will be accepted from July 22nd through October 3rd.

Comments Wanted: Proposed HUD Rule To Expand Low-Income Residential Internet Access

As part of a growing interest in expanding fast, affordable, reliable Internet access for low-income families at home, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has proposed a new regulation requiring high-speed Internet infrastructure to be installed in HUD-funded multi-family rental housing during new construction or substantial rehabilitation. While the proposed rule doesn’t require developers to pay for Internet service subscriptions, it is a step in eliminating barriers that low-income families face in obtaining quality, consistent Internet access. Public comments are due July 18, 2016.

The proposed rule covers HUD’s rental assistance and grant programs, including its Section 8 housing assistance program, Supportive Housing for the Elderly and Disabled program, Community Development Block Grant program, and Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant program. Families living in multi-family housing can then choose to purchase full-priced Internet access from local providers or utilize other resources in their community, which include federal subsidy programs in addition to other state, local, and charitable programs.

Getting Wired Up

As for the actual infrastructure, several types of Internet access technologies satisfy the requirement. Developers can install either wireless (Wi-Fi, fixed and mobile wireless, satellite) or wired (digital subscriber lines also known as DSL, power lines or BPL, cable lines, or fiber) infrastructure. HUD expects most builders will elect to install wired access because of the rapidly changing nature of wireless technologies.

Additionally, wired access is more likely to provide meaningful competition between several Internet Service Providers (ISPs), lowering costs and improving service quality for multi-family housing residents. In an open access network, ISPs typically lease space on infrastructure owned by another entity rather than owning the physical infrastructure themselves. If HUD's new rule called for an open access model, multiple ISPs could utilize a building’s wired infrastructure to offer services to residents. According to HUD’s estimates, which are detailed in the proposed rule, the average construction costs for wired broadband access in its multi-family housing is approximately $200 per unit.

Promoting Equity Through Competition

HUD’s proposed rule is one of the federal government’s initial attempts to address the digital divide. Programs such as the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program provide credits to families to purchase Internet services, but the programs are small and help consumers pay bills rather than lower costs by promoting competition.

HUD seeks public input about the proposed rule. While HUD asks for feedback on specific questions in the proposal, ILSR also encourages comments that affirm the importance of the proposed rule and support the installation of wired technologies that create open access networks that offer multiple benefits to subscribers rather than wireless technologies. Comments can be submitted online or by mail and are due July 18, 2016

Community Broadband Media Roundup - July 11

Maryland

Town receives grant and funding for fiber optic cable by Joseph Norris, The Bay Net

Minnesota

Kandiyohi County signs letter of intent with broadband partner by Anne Polta, West Central Tribune

General

Untangling Google Fiber's twist on America's unending digital divide by Lauren Walker, Daily Dot

Whether [the provider] is public or private, if it is owned by the community, there is typically pressure on them to deliver a good product,” Mitchell says. “But when it is owned by someone who has no connection to the community, or can’t even find the community on a map, then the quality of the product tends to decline.”

Dear Landlord: Don't rip me off when it comes to Internet access by Susan Crawford, BackChannel

Analysis: Internet access - An incomplete promise by Frederick L. Pilot, Daily Yonder

Americans are victims of arbitrary redlining by incumbent telephone and cable companies. It’s difficult to make a credible argument that living a third of a mile from existing infrastructure puts a customer in the middle of nowhere, making it too expensive to extend service.

Elizabeth Warren slams Comcast, wants more antitrust enforcement by Karl Bode, DSL Reports

[Video] Small towns join forces to bridge the digital divide by Zachary Green and Ivette Feliciano, PBS Newshour