Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 118 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Elin Katz and Bill Valee on better Internet access for Connecticut communities. Listen to this episode here.
Elin Katz: What are the economics of this going to be? Are you saying, well, no, we're going to have a model that comes at no cost to any citizen, but will get you the goal of sort of rolling through different neighborhoods? So, those are the hard questions.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi, and welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute of Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez.
In this episode, Chris takes us to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he recently attended a Broadband Communities Economic Development Conference. While he was there, he met up with Elin Katz, the Consumer Counsel for the state of Connecticut, and Bill Vallee, state Broadband Policy Coordinator. Elin shared some exciting news about efforts to expand gigabit access in three Connecticut communities. Businesses in the region have expressed a need for fast, affordable, reliable access. Community leaders are taking steps to create an environment friendly to private enterprise, with a strategy that embraces publicly-owned infrastructure. The project in mind is an "open access" network, and ISPs have already expressed interest. Elin, Bill, and Chris discuss how these communities are taking advantage of their existing assets, how they are adopting a collaborative approach, and some of the state regulatory changes that facilitate broadband deployment in Connecticut. Here is Chris, with an on-site interview with Elin Katz and Bill Vallee.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, live, coming to you from Springfield, Massachusetts, with Elin Katz, Consumer Counsel of the state of Connecticut. Welcome to the show.
Elin Katz: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Chris: And Bill Vallee, the Broadband Policy Coordinator in the state of Connecticut.
Bill Vallee: Nice to see you, Chris.
Chris: I have to say that -- Elin, it's my first time meeting you. Bill has been one of the most fun people, year after year, at the Broadband Communities Conference and ...
Elin: How high a bar is that?
Chris: You know, there's some fun people there, but Bill is a very entertaining person.
Elin: I believe it. I believe it.
Chris: Elin, could you describe your job, just for a second? What is the Consumer Counsel do?
Elin: Yes. I'm the consumer advocate on energy, natural gas, water, and telecommunications. I'm the head of a very small, independent, non-partisan state agency.
Chris: OK. And, Bill, you often are described as a SBI. What is that, and what do you do?
Bill: I'm a state broadband initiative person. My salary is reimbursed by the National Telecommunications and, um -- NTIA.
Chris: NTIA. Department of Commerce, right?
Bill: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, yeah. So, the NTIA basically advised the White House and other executive branch groups as to telecommunications and information issues, particularly broadband.
Chris: Excellent. So, one of the reasons I wanted to have you on the show is, you have this very exciting announcement. Why don't you tell us what you've just announced, and what Connecticut is experimenting with?
Elin: Yeah. On Monday, September 15th, we announced that there are three communities in Connecticut -- the cities of West Hartford, New Haven, and Stamford -- have issued a joint RFQ (Request for Qualifications), seeking Internet service providers or other interested parties who want to work with them on developing gig networks in their communities. I think what's a little unique about it is, it's an "open access" RFQ, in that they are inviting any other town in Connecticut to join them, so -- because they realize that the bigger the better, and there's economies of scale, and strength in numbers. And so, I think that's unique. It's a unique model we haven't seen anywhere else in the country. And already, even before we announced it, we were getting calls from other municipalities saying, wait a minute, this sounds interesting. So it's off to a good start.
Chris: Well, let me ask. I think there's a perception -- Connecticut -- rather small state -- probably, in my estimation, probably pretty well served already. What is the need in general? Is it to be competitive with the fastest -- the gigabit cities? Or is it just to maintain some basic baseline connection?
Elin: Well, the -- Right. As far as built-out, we are pretty built-out. We do have 169 towns in our little state. And the average speed is about 9 meg. But what we're trying to do is meet the need that we've heard -- what I would call existing need -- from the business community. We did a listening tour this summer, around the state, aimed at businesses. And got a tremendous turnout, particularly from the high-tech sector, saying -- describing their challenges either with not being able to get adequate speed, or being able to get it after a very, very long wait at a very, very high price.
Elin: So we look at that as -- I think there's already a pent-up demand in the business market. And then we also heard from the same businesses and from citizens that they're having trouble attracting young talent, or creating the kind of virtual office space they want. Because they want to come and work from home, and we've got high-tech industries like -- we put a lot of investment and energy into Jackson Labs, which is genomic medicine -- individualized medicine, massive data. And we went and met with the folks out there and said, you know, we're thinking about this, are you interested in it? And the professors there -- because it's part of UConn -- were practically jumping over the table, saying if I could work from home, that would be life-changing. It would, you know -- every time I get an idea in the middle of the night I've got to drive in to the office if I want to do anything about it. So, I think we have a burgeoning consumer market and a really-ramping-up-very-quickly business market.
Chris: One of the things that we really like to focus on is city-owned networks. Now this kind of approach is wide open to lots of different approaches, right?
Chris: So you could have responses from people who want to work with the cities...
Chris: ... where the city would perhaps put up the funding and own the network but have a private operator. There's -- really, any model is open at this point, right?
Elin: Yeah. I mean, I think -- In my office, we joke that there's -- sometimes it's good to be fifth. You know, you don't always want to be the early adopter. So we want to learn from all those who have come ahead of us. So there's, as you know, many, many municipal networks already in play, and already different models. But we're looking for the providers, or the people who think they can help us, to come in and say, all right, looking at your demographics, looking at your topography, looking at your structure, this is what makes the most sense. Yeah, I want to serve these three towns, but if you could create a regional coalition, then I could do this for you. Or, if you look at it on a bigger level or a grander level -- I've also heard Internet -- ISPs who said, well, yeah, you know, I'm definitely going to respond; I probably couldn't do a whole area but I could certainly do a small town. So, we're just trying to get all the options on the table.
Chris: What kind of assets do these towns have to contribute? Do any of them already have fiber, or other kinds of in-kind contributions?
Bill: That's a good question, Chris. West Harford I'll single out, because it had a rich individual who took it upon himself -- in 2000 -- to develop a 75-mile fiber -- hybrid fiber coax at the time, it's now fully fiber -- network, which he thought he could do video-on-demand -- or "video dial-tone," as he called it back then. And so he built it out. And the problem was that he was really the only guy doing that at the time. And so the Southern New England Telephone Company -- now AT&T, soon to be Frontier -- took him on. In a headlock, big-time. Which is how I came in, to play with him, because we've tried to do it with administrative law, we went to federal court. We went to the state court. We went ex parte to the FCC, to try to protect that investment and asset.
Bill: And they just wore him down. So, $50 million out of the cookie jar later, he said, enough already. So he gave it to the town of West Harford, which is now owns it today. And a couple years ago -- and they did a general obligation bond for 2 million bucks, brought it up to speed, made it spick-and-span, and they're running it around the entire town, doing municipal buildings, libraries, school -- the whole shaboo. And I think they're a very viable candidate. I can think of a number of ISPs that have spoken to me about it -- gee, that might be an intriguing idea for me.
Stamford, obviously, they have -- Connecticut has a -- I don't if it's a law so much as a philosophy or a theme -- that transportation-based housing is -- all that kind of thing. So, you center around a railroad station, say, in Stamford, which is a huge railroad thing. Because it's all commuters into New York City, which isn't very far from there. And you have Westport and right down the line all the way over to New Haven...
Bill: ... going through there. So they have several thousand millennials with incomes over 100,000 bucks, plus the corporations.
Bill: So that's a prime market. And I think that market will do very well. And then New Haven has much more of a low income, and bigger problems, and so forth. But it also has Yale, right downtown, which is obviously a very wealthy institution. And it's got fingers out into the community. And it's a very community-minded university. So that's an appealing kind of place to --
Chris: You know, I don't think there's any actual municipal fiber-to-the-home networks in Connecticut, other than -- well, you just mentioned West Hartford.
Bill: Actually, it's not fiber-to-the-home.
Elin: It's an attempt at fiber-to-the-home.
Bill: Yeah, concept-wise, but it never got there. There is no retail, that's true. A lot of towns do have their own fiber. I could name half a dozen, right off the top. And it's mostly municipal use. So, it's what you would expect.
Chris: Which is common, I think. While there's 400 communities we track that do municipal fiber to private entities, I estimate there's well over a thousand that just do it to community anchor institutions and that sort of thing. So, it's not very surprising.
Elin: One more thing about these three municipalities. We -- Bill and I have been working on this for a couple of years, but we had a conference in April, in which we geared it specifically to municipal officials, state officials, legislators and service providers. And as a result of that, these are the three towns that really stepped forward and said, we really want to do this. They came looking for us. So we thought it made sense to start with the three most motivated towns. Because I think political will is a big, big part of getting this done. And these are three towns who are determined, and have a great track record for getting things done, being organized, getting stuff off the ground. So, --
Chris: So, would you say that was a catalyzing event, having a conference and inviting so many different stakeholders together in April?
Elin: I think it was. Yeah. I mean, this is something we had been talking about to various people, in the halls, in meetings. And my philosophy was, all right, let's just have this conversation out in the open. We invited the incumbents to come, and they came, and they participated, as well as a lot of the -- some of the smaller providers in the state. And I look at it as, we have a problem, and how are we going to get to the best solution?
Elin: You know, maybe it's naïve of me to think that people are going to think that at face value, but I want to know from all the parties how -- Not everyone agrees there's a problem, thought, so that's ...
Elin: ... one of the issues.
Chris: Right. Well -- And I think one of the things about having an event like that is, it forces people who may say, "We don't think there's a problem," to state it in public.
Chris: ... and may find that ninety percent of the audience laughs at them.
Elin: Yeah. Yeah. Well, at our event on Monday, when we did a big press conference launching it, each of the mayors brought in one or two high-tech industries from their -- from right in their towns, who stood up and said, we need this, ...
Elin: ... and this is why, and this is why. And then we had Jackson Labs, the big biotech business -- company -- represented. And then we also had a statement from Mun Choi, who's the Provost of UConn. So, one really tried to create a picture of how the need was there. Because I think you have to demonstrate need in the market before you can move on to the next level, ...
Elin: ... which is getting responses.
Bill: Another asset that I might add is that Elin and I have travelled around, talking to large ISPs -- not necessarily LECs or cable companies that are -- that might not...
Chris: "LECs" being phone companies.
Bill: I'm sorry, yeah. Phone companies. I'm an old telephone guy -- old is the word. But a non-LEC, or a phone company, or a cable company. Big names that I won't name. And the thing that those types of entities have been most impressed with -- by Connecticut -- is the public rights-of-way access.
Chris: Yeah, I wanted to finish up with that. There's something called a "municipal gain," which is a very boring term. But what is the "municipal gain," and why is it so interesting in Connecticut?
Elin: Well, a municipal gain is -- if you think of a utility pole being divided into sections, like the rungs on a ladder -- the municipalities have their -- they're called "gains" -- they have their own gain, they have their own space on the pole that's just for them. And it originally started for signal wires -- for fire, for telegraph -- I mean, the history is a little blurry, but - And that sort of has evolved. But in 2013, we made a statutory change and said that the municipal gain can now be used by the municipality for any purpose, PERIOD. So, we think that that makes it -- gives the municipalities like a great tool -- to, you know, lease their right-of-way, or build their own network. I mean, they have access to the poles as a right. And we've been told by some of the big "other" companies this is one of the best, if not the best, statutory schemes in the country. Because, as you know, utility poles access is the biggest factor for anyone who wants to come and string a network. So -- and that's on top of -- and also, on Saturday -- we've had a big week -- they announced, out of our Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, there's a draft decision approving an idea we've been pushing literally for years, called the "single pole administrator." So, that's really exciting, too, if you want to mention that. Bill, do you want to talk about that?
Chris: Yeah, let's hear it.
Bill: Yeah. Well, it's very exciting.
Elin: It's Bill's brainchild --
Bill: Yeah, exactly. I've been championing this thing ...
Elin: Ten years ago.
Bill: ... for a million years. I was called a communist by the lead commissioner at an oral argument once. And a telephone --
Elin: A long time ago, not the current leader --
Bill: No, no. Definitely. No one who is currently living or even in my imagination. And one of the telephone attorneys came in with one of those Chinese beaver hats, with a big red star, saying actually this should be on your head.
Bill: So, OK.
But now it's actually going to happen. It's like incredible. So, basically what has happened is, the electric companies -- there are two in Connecticut -- have made a proposal to the regulator saying, "We would like to be the single pole administrator." And these are the things we would do. And it’s basically to streamline and manage the process of attachments. I would also add, on top of that, that the make-ready process in Connecticut -- in fact, the entire attachment process to the public rights-of-way -- conduit or poles -- has been beautifully structured. It has very tight deadlines. It was mentioned in the National Broadband Plan as a very cool thing. And so they will be, basically, the clerk of the works, or manager on the poles, to make those deadlines happen. And if they don't, they will report to the regulator. And the regulator has said, in this draft decision, it says, and there will be penalties for ma and dad, to make sure this happens.
Elin: So, we've made this as easy, as cheap, and as fast as anywhere in the country to get on the poles.
Chris: Excellent. Well, I really hope that that makes a difference. I mean, this is one of those issues that the cable and telephones have for years said, well, if you make you it really easy, then we'll invest all this money. And many of us haven't believed them. So this is a great opportunity for them to prove us wrong, by building great networks in Connecticut.
Bill: Right. It's a test case.
Elin: I'll keep you posted. We'll come back in a year and tell you how many great, new networks have arisen from this because of our incumbent folks.
Chris: Yes. Well, and possibly I presume that there's no limit. So you could potentially have multiple providers with different interests, or even overlapping interests, applying ...
Chris: ... to work with these cities.
Elin: Yeah. Well, I mean, we followed, partially, the largely Louisville model, and also the NC Engine model. And Louisville had multiple responses, and, I think, are focusing on three different providers. So we could have, you know, a big town like Stamford or New Haven could easily end up with more than one response. Or maybe, we'll have, you know, an angel come in and say, oh, we'll do all of you, and anyone else who wants to come in, and we have a great deal. And so, I think that's what's sort of exciting and scary, as we have no idea what's behind door 1, 2, or 3.
Chris: Right. So I have a hard question I'd like to ask. I'm curious ...
Elin: Bill did it.
Bill: Ask Elin.
Chris: Is there a concern that some of the responses might say, yes, we'd love to serve the areas around Yale ...
Chris: ... and the rest of New Haven can take a flying leap?
Elin: Right. Right.
Chris: Is that a concern?
Elin: I mean, yeah, I think, obviously, you have to be aware of both the demographics of the communities and also what are your goals. I mean, I am becoming -- I think your ideal response gives you an "open access" system that can spread to whole communities, including your lower-income areas, because you want to bring the advantages to it. You know, if you -- the flip side of that is, well, I think it's the Google Fiber "fiberhood" model that makes the most sense if you're just looking from a pure economic, because you're going to the audience. So --
Chris: A market-driven approach.
Elin: A market-driven approach. Crowd-sourcing. I think the question is, well, do you go with that approach, because that gets something done, and you hope incrementally you spread out? I mean, you said, yourself, today, an incremental approach may be the best ...
Elin: ... but I think you have to be confident that you're incrementally moving in the right direction ...
Elin: So, yeah. I think it's an issue. It's one we're very aware of. So it depends on your public policy goals. And those are still being -- I think we'll refine those, based on the possible, not just the ideal.
Chris: Right. This is where -- I mean, I kind of wish that our friend, Blair Levin, were in the room ...
Elin: Ah. Yes.
Chris: ... because Blair would say, well, even if you only build out to a small portion, everyone is better off. Or nobody's worse off.
Chris: And I've disagreed with him on that. And -- But I think that this is exciting, because we are in a period where we can experiment with different models. And I would hope that some of the responses to some of the cities in Connecticut will be, in fact, making sure that every last person is connected.
Elin: Yeah. And those may be more expensive models. And so that means you have to make some -- sit down and make some decisions about what are the economics of this going to be? Are you saying, well, no, we're going to have a model that comes at no cost to any citizen? I know that's certainly appealing on a lot of levels. Or are -- but will get you the goal of sort of rolling through different neighborhoods. So, those are the hard questions.
Bill: I was thinking, too, that -- we mentioned the municipal gain earlier -- the space on the pole. But we also have the Connecticut Education Network, which is now fully built-out as a product of a BTOP grant from the '09-'10 period. And it was $94 million. And all 169 towns have this fiber network. And it's quite robust. It delivered 10 gig to nodes, and then -- but they actually shop one, but you can easily, you know, ramp up. And it has bursting up to 10 quite easily. So, it's a school, it's a library, it's a municipal fire and police in every town. So it's quite robust. And I think that will help with the low-income. And to other areas, in particular, rural. Because our rates with the Connecticut Education Network are -- they're in the middle of the market ...
Bill: ... for these speeds. However, our maintenance is top. I mean, you're fixed in hours, not days. And so, quality of the service is excellent, but, most particularly, it goes to every single town. So that's why the rates are where they are. Because if you average them across, which you have to do, by right, we have towns where it costs several hundred thousand dollars to simply put a node in, you know. And Fiber Tech -- and excuse me for naming names, but, you know, Fiber Tech actually owns the fiber; they were the recipients of the BTOP money, literally -- don't have to do that. I mean, they're cherry-picking, the way you just described they do. And that's correct. Whereas, the Connecticut Education Network had to go to every town. And so, we're in every town. There's no reason that someone couldn't come in and do retail at the local level, in the middle of nowhere. Because they just tap into our node, and they go out as far as it economically makes sense. I think that's a great plan. There's no reason [not] to do that. I could definitely see that down the road. It's not that our network is totally unique, but it's up there, because it's so robust. I mean, we were pretty well along -- it's a wealthy state -- no denying that -- but we were well along, so we were perfect for BTOP, because it was shovel-ready, even in the broadband sense. It was designed, permits, everybody's in place. And so, we did 9-1-1 -- totally IP. And then this Education Network. We're so advanced, in terms of infrastructure -- I'm on the board that governs the thing -- that we're now shipping our brains up into content. Because we have the access ...
Chris: You solved the problem.
Bill: Yeah. The "railroad" is into the schools, it's into the libraries, and so forth. Now it's a question of, can we have better "boxcars" going into those facilities? And, you know, there are school districts in Connecticut -- Glastonbury comes to mind -- where all the administrators have iPads, all the teachers have iPads, and we're starting to roll it into classes. Glastonbury, for instance, just this term, which is just starting, has seven, eight, and ten and eleven. All the kids have iPads. We have the capacity, because of this incredible ...
Chris: In the schools.
Bill: Yeah. So, we're rockin', in that sense.
Chris: Excellent. Well, are there any final comments?
Elin: No. Thanks for having us on. And stay tuned. I hope we can continue to keep talking with you, about what the responses are. And I'm always interested in your expertise as to what models have worked and what has been less successful. Because that's going to inform, I think, the direction.
Bill: I was going to say, the work you do is awesome. And the blog is great. And these radio shows are awesome.
Chris: Well, I want to thank you both, Elin Katz and Bill Vallee, for coming on the show today.
Bill: Thanks a million.
Lisa: We are certainly looking forward to sharing more about the New Haven, West Hartford, and Stamford project as it develops. Until then, send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets. This week, we want to thank Jesse Evans for the song, "Is it Fire?" licensed through Creative Commons. And thank you again for listening.