Connecticut Focuses on Local Leadership

At the end of March, city leaders across the state of Connecticut converged on a conference to discuss the deficiencies of Internet access and ways to move forward such as a regional network, municipal networks, and public private partnerships. Over the past year, the communities of New Haven, Hartford, and Manchester, have explored several of these possibilities. What pathway they choose depends in part on the outcome of the conference.

The Conference: A Long Time Coming

The conference High-Speed Broadband Infrastructure: A Toolbox for Municipalities took place the state capital Hartford, Connecticut, on March 23, 2016. The presenters, featuring the mayors of New Haven and Hartford, addressed the diverse needs of Connecticut’s communities.

And those needs are many. The Office of Consumer Counsel just released two reports on Connecticut’s connectivity. The first report describes the deficiencies of Internet access in Connecticut. It narrates many of the struggles small, local institutions face in trying to receive adequate Internet service from incumbent providers. The second report recommends a matching grant program for pilot projects based on lessons learned from other states’ programs. 

The conference and reports came out of an initiative called the CT Gig Project. Based out of the Offices of the Consumer Counsel and the Comptroller, the CT Gig Project encouraged communities to coordinate Requests for Qualifications (RFQ) to generate information from private providers about building a statewide, open access, gigabit network. (Chris spoke about the details of the CT Gig Project with Connecticut’s Consumer Counsel Elin Katz and the State Broadband Policy Coordinator Bill Vallee in Community Broadband Bits Episode #118.) In 2014, more than 40 communities joined the initiative that New Haven and Hartford spearheaded. The process ultimately brought the towns together, setting the stage for the conference, but it would not have taken off without the previous work of Manchester over ten years ago.

Manchester’s Old Fight Empowers Communities Today

In the mid-1990s, Manchester became one of the first cities in New England to create citywide fiber network. City leaders utilized a key component of right-of-way (ROW) regulation, the Municipal Gain Law, to quickly deploy fiber throughout the city on the existing utility poles.

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The Municipal Gain Law provides the municipality a position (gain) on each utility pole that is standing in the municipal ROW.

Manchester connected public buildings to one another for internal communication via the “FiberNet”, but still purchased their Internet access through the incumbent provider, SNET (later bought by Frontier Communications). SNET brought the town to court over the Municipal Gain Law. After a fierce legal fight, the case came to a successful resolution in the early 2000s. Now, with the push to improve connectivity for the rest of the state, Manchester is well situated to revisit the possibilities of its “FiberNet.”

According to Chief Information Officer Jack McCoy, Manchester has over 20,000 properties, so a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project would prove expensive. If Manchester built the network on its own, the economic development potential might make up for the costs. FiberNet already runs throughout the town; bringing fiber to businesses and homes could provide new vitality to the local economy. McCoy suggested the city would consider leveraging FiberNet assets to partner with a private provider. Mayor Jay Moran told us, "All options are on the table."

Hartford: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

While Manchester has been taking its time investigating options, Hartford pushed forward. The state capital and one of most populous cities in Connecticut with 125,000 people, Hartford immediately jumped at the opportunity presented by the CT Gig Project. According to the Office of Consumer Counsel's first report, many in Hartford do not have ready access to affordable high-speed Internet for their homes or businesses even though Hartford is a hub of economic and political activity.

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Incumbent providers have deployed fiber throughout the city but several small businesses have been quoted tens of thousands of dollars for fiber installation. These small businesses have had to get creative to manage. For instance, an incubator space in the Conference of Churches constructed a wireless connection from a State building a half-mile away to receive somewhat adequate speeds. 

Although one of the first to join the CT Gig Project, Hartford maintains realistic timetable expectations. Efforts to get high-quality Internet access into Hartford have slowed as the city administration enters the budgeting season. Chief Information Officer Sabina Sitaru in the consolidated IT department of the city and school system of Hartford explained that, although momentum for the CT Gig project has slowed, the demand for better Internet access still exists. Grassroots efforts are trying to keep up the energy, and the conference bolsters that support.

In New Haven, Ideas and Plans Abound

Much like Hartford, New Haven moved quickly ahead. The city signed onto the CT Gig Project, and the Mayor Toni Harp spoke favorably of an open access network in a 2015 WNHH Community Radio Interview. In fact, by late summer 2015, the New Haven Board of Alders had passed a resolution to explore a feasibility study for a regional network. Community leaders supported the plan, but before the community could commission a feasibility study, an offer to partner with the incumbent got the attention of New Haven's leadership.

In late August 2015, Frontier pitched a public-private partnership through its subsidiary SNET. Frontier had previously purchased the incumbent company SNET in 2014 and had moved the regional headquarters into the city of New Haven. The introduction of the idea of a municipal network, however, changed the conversation around Frontier’s role in the city. This partnership offer, however, did not grow into a viable plan.

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Considering Frontier's horrible reputation with customers, including snaillike speeds and frustrating customer service, New Haven is better off without Frontier as a partner. They have toyed with communities in the past, alluding to partnerships only to eventually back out. In 2007 - 08, Frontier continued to string along Lac qui Parle County as it looked for a partner to develop a County wide fiber optic network. Finally, after a formal request for a partnership from the County went ignored by Frontier, the County decided to work with local cooperative, Farmers Mutual Telephone Company. As customers abandoned Frontier for better connections on the new network, Frontier tried to bully them with steep early termination fees. Read more about it in our 2014 report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models For Expanding Fiber Internet Access.

There are still many opportunities to close the digital divide and build economic potential, explained New Haven City Controller Daryl Jones. The city is considering offering free Wi-Fi on the green during concerts and may sell advertising to local businesses that will run over the Wi-Fi, possibly as splash pages. A local company in New Haven has been involved in improving Internet access in public housing in New York City -- New Haven may work with them. 

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Jones repeated that age-old proverb in describing the situation. The problem of slow, unaffordable Internet access does not have a quick and easy fix, but Connecticut won’t stop trying. The two new reports and the conference are just a few more new bites out of this elephantine problem.