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"We Just Can't Go Back In Time": Pinetops Calls For Repeal Of State Law

In a September 22nd press release, the community of Pinetops, North Carolina, called out their Governor as they lose access to high-quality Internet access. Read the full statement here:

A state law is forcing the termination of Gigabit Internet service to the small rural town of Pinetops, NC. Last week, members of the Wilson, NC City Council expressed their deep regrets as they voted to approve the city attorney’s recommendation to disconnect Wilson Greenlight services in Pinetops under the North Carolina law commonly known as H129 (S.L. 2011-84).

Wilson was able to bring fiber-to-the-home Gigabit service to our town in April 2016, after the FCC preempted H129 on the grounds that it is anti-competitive and creates barriers to the deployment of advanced telecommunications capacity. Under Governor Pat McCrory, North Carolina challenged that ruling in May, 2015 in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and won a reversal last August.

Members of the Pinetops community are particularly distressed because the Gigabit service Wilson was delivering enabled Pinetops to compete with urban areas of North Carolina that get such Gigabit services from Google Fiber, AT&T, and Frontier. In Pinetops, in contrast, other sources of Internet service don’t meet the federal definition of broadband and are insufficient to support small business, home-based telework needs, and homework for students. The Gigabit network enabled the Town to begin developing new economic development plans to attract knowledge workers from nearby Greenville and Rocky Mount. That strategy is now impossible in light of the imminent disconnection of Gigabit services.

Town Commissioner Suzanne Coker-Craig operates a small screen printing business that depends on Wilson Greenlight’s hyper-fast upload speeds.  Commissioner Coker-Craig, with her colleagues in Pinetops government, passed a resolution in early September detailing the devastating economic impact this disconnection will have on their rural community. “H129 is now only hurting North Carolina’s rural communities.” the Commissioner stated. “Our urban areas are getting their Gigabit from the likes of Google. This is not a positive move forward for Eastern North Carolina in any fashion and we must lay the blame and the resolution at the feet of our Governor and state legislators” who are responsible for the anti-Gigabit law.

Pinetops Mayor Burress met last week with Governor McCrory’s staff, and handed them the Town’s letter and a Town resolution asking for repeal of the law that is forcing the Wilson City Council to cease service to Pinetops.  

Commissioner Coker-Craig reported that she has set up a Facebook page ​called “NC Small Towns Need Internet Access,” that directs residents on how to call their legislators and candidates who are running against them. “We are holding the Governor and our state legislature responsible for keeping this law in place, by challenging the FCC and knowing this would be the effect of a win. This law is not about protecting taxpayers, it’s about preventing competitive choice, and now it’s only hurting our rural areas where those monopoly companies could care less about bringing us 21st Century Internet.”

“We just can’t go back in time,” said Coker-Craig. “That does not represent sound social or economic policy,” the Mayor’s letter states.

​The Wilson Times reports that the Town's fiber network will be disconnected by Halloween.​

Designing A Faster Anacortes Starts With NoaNet

Anacortes, Washington, is officially on the road to better connectivity via publicly owned infrastructure. Community leaders voted on September 19th to collaborate with the statewide middle mile network, Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet), to get the project started.

One Piece At A Time

Public Works will be the first to use the fiber backbone to monitor and control its facilities; the community’s current radio-based system is prone to frequent failure. Water and sewer utility funds will pay for the design and construction of this section of the network. Officials estimate the fiber backbone will cost around $3 million.

Turning To Experience

The city approved $175,000 in design fees to nonprofit NoaNet, in part because it is funded and managed by several public utility districts. It brings high-quality Internet access to local government facilities all across the state. NoaNet’s fiber-optic network spans Washington with more than 2,000 miles through metro and rural areas. Its open access model encourages multiple service providers to offer services to more than 2,000 schools, libraries, hospitals, and other community anchor institutions in over 170 communities. The network has served the state for 15 years.

The Anacortes plan would connect its network to the Internet and then to local businesses and homes in a later phase. For now, the city’s priority is the utilities upgrade:

“Every day my guys are telling me we have (communication) failures,” Buckenmeyer said. “A fiber telemetry system is arguably the best system you can have. Our current system is outdated and we need to do something about it.”

Buckenmeyer said the first phase of the network could be finished within 18 months.

An Island Community

Anacortes, home to about 16,000 people, is located on the northern half of Fidalgo Island. Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands surround it on the north; Skagit Valley and Mount Vernon, another community with its own municipal network, are east on the mainland.

Island communities are often plagued by poor connectivity. Often they are hard to reach and large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can't justify the cost to bring high-quality Internet access to places that are not densely populated. Places like Islesboro, Maine, and Doe Bay, which is also in Washington, have taken to finding their own solutions to improving Internet access.

Coverage Of Pinetops: Hear Us On PRX

As part of our coverage on the events in Pinetops, North Carolina, we recently published "Rural Pinetops Disconnected from Internet Thanks to Telecom Monopolies" on PRX. The audio story runs for 3:28.

Readers are familiar with the small rural community that could only get high-quality Internet access from Greenlight, a nearby municipal electric utility. Wilson, the home of Greenlight, was forced to cut off service to Pinetops due to restrictive state laws. We talk a local business owner and community leader, to Suzanne Coker Craig, about the situation. 

Get more details at PRX...

Expect more audio coverage of current events that impact residents, businesses, and local governments as they strive to obtain better connectivity. We encourage you to share this and upcoming stories to help spread the word about the benefits of publicly owned networks and the right for local communities to determine their own broadband destiny.

Cool & Connected in "Little Gig City"

Few communities in Tennessee have next-generation, high-speed connectivity, but the city of Erwin built its own network despite Tennessee’s restrictions. Now through a collaboration of federal and regional agencies, this “Little Gig City” will get assistance showing off their fiber network.

The planning assistance program, called Cool & Connected, will provide direct assistance to Erwin to develop a marketing plan for the fiber network. Cool & Connected looks to promote the Appalachian communities by using connectivity to revitalize small-town neighborhoods and encourage vibrant main streets with economic development.

Federal and Regional Collaboration

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy explained the program in The Chattanoogan

“Cool & Connected will help create vibrant, thriving places to live, work, and play. We’re excited to be working with these local leaders and use broadband service as a creative strategy to improve the environment and public health in Appalachian communities.”  

Three governmental agencies have brought together the Cool & Connected program to provide planning assistance to ten chosen communities in six states near the Appalachian Mountains. Agencies partnering on the initiative are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Services, and the Appalachian Regional Commission through the Partnership for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) initiative.

The “Little Gig City” That Could

Although Erwin is a small community of 6,000 people, it expertly navigated Tennessee’s restrictive municipal networks law. The city built the network incrementally starting in 2014. By leasing out Erwin's excess electrical capacity, officials have been able to build each section without taking on any new debt. The network started serving customers in early 2015.

The scenic community is right on the eastern edge of the state, nestled into the Appalachian Mountains. It may not be the first place that comes to mind for high-speed connectivity, but the Cool & Connected program will encourage young professionals, investors, and visitors to recognize the potential of the "Little Gig City." 

Examining Connectivity Alternatives: Op-Ed In Rochester

When the Rochester Post-Bulletin published Christopher Mitchell’s opinion piece in August, it wasn’t only because he is an expert on municipal networks. Christopher’s interest in all things geeky started in Rochester - he went to Rochester Mayo High School.

A Budding Idea

For the past few years, various elected officials, and member of the community-at-large have expressed dissatisfaction for services offered by incumbent Charter Communications. In addition to poor services, City Council members have faced complaints from constituents about awful customer service. Over the past year, the community began showing that they will not abandon the idea of publicly owned Internet infrastructure.

The city, home to the world-class Mayo Clinic, is a hub of healthcare discovery. As medical technology becomes more intertwined with fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, Rochester’s expensive and lackluster incumbent Internet providers are showing that they just aren’t cutting it.

Local Support And Early Analysis

In June, the Post Bulletin Editorial Board published their support for a review of the options:

We'd encourage the council and Rochester Utilities Board (RPU) board to make every effort to explore the costs and benefits of installing municipal broadband Internet services as a way of ensuring our community stays effectively connected to the world around it.

Considering Rochester's economic dependence on science and technology, having access to the highest speeds possible is crucial to the city's future. Unfortunately, existing services lag behind those being offered in other cities, putting Rochester's businesses and residents at a competitive disadvantage.

Many questions and concerns remain, but finding answers is the best way for the city to make sure it is serving the needs of its constituents to the fullest.

RPU staff consulted experts as it investigated options and presented their estimates to the City Council and the RPU Board in July. They concluded the city would need to invest approximately $53 million in capital to build a fiber-optic network. With the cost of bonding, staff estimates the total cost for a citywide municipal fiber-optic network would be $67 million.

Smart Move

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Soon after the city heard RPU staff’s findings, the Post Bulletin published Christopher's piece. He points out that the city makes a smart move in evaluating the options. Businesses and residents are lacking choice and the community’s economic foundation is likely at risk unless connectivity improves:

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 3 out of 4 Americans only have one choice of high-speed Internet provider. If you hear claims that Rochester has many providers, dig deeper. Those statistics are aggregated, which means that while you could have four different providers in a single neighborhood, most homes probably only have access to one or two of them.

Another challenge that Rochester faces is that some nearby communities like St Charles have HBC, a private provider from Winona with an excellent reputation, that is expanding a gigabit fiber-optic network throughout smaller towns in the region. Those communities will increasingly draw high-tech people out of Rochester, trading a commute for far better Internet access.

Christopher points out that there are a number of possibilities and that the city is already ahead because they have an electric utility. He reminds them that they need to consider the future of the community and that the greatest peril comes from inertia:

None of these approaches comes without risk — but then, many communities have found that doing nothing is an even greater risk. Just don't let anyone fool you into thinking the choice is between borrowing $67 million and doing nothing.

Rochester should continue examining its options and decide on the best step forward for it as a whole for the long term. We all want a solution to meet our needs in the near term, but as RPU demonstrates, smart investments can continue benefiting the community decades upon decades later.

Nashville: One Touch Make Ready Moves Forward

On September 6th, the Nashville Metro Council approved a proposed One Touch Make Ready (OTMR) ordinance by a wide margin of 32-7 on a roll call vote (computers were down). This was the second vote to advance the ordinance, designed to streamline deployment of fiber-optic networks in a city looking for better connectivity. Elected officials responded to Nashville residents who flooded their council members’ offices with emails.

The Nashville Metro Council will take up the ordinance one last time; passage could speed up competition in the country music capital. Google Fiber has been pushing for a OTMR, while incumbents AT&T and Comcast look for a non-legislative solution to the problem of the poles while protecting their positions as dominant Internet Service Players (ISPs).

Caught Between A Rock And A Hard Stick

The city of Nashville sits on limestone, a rock that cannot support the trenching and underground work of fiber deployment. The only other option is to use the utility poles. Eighty percent of the poles are owned by the public utility Nashville Electric Service (NES), but incumbent provider AT&T owns the other 20 percent. Google Fiber says it needs to attach fiber to 88,000 poles in Nashville to build its network and about half of those (44,000) need to be prepared to host their wires. 

Pole attachments are highly regulated, but there are still gray areas. Susan Crawford provides an overview of the policies and regulations on BackChannel; she accurately describes how poles can be weapons that guard monopoly position. Currently, each company that has equipment on the poles must send out a separate crew to move only their own equipment. This process can drag on for months. The OTMR ordinance is a deceptively simple solution to this delay. 

Deceptively Simple, But Regulated

At its simplest, OTMR means that one crew moves everything; the ordinance under debate in Nashville is actually more complicated than that. (Read the Nashville OTMR ordinance here.)

If Company A wants to add equipment to the poles, it still has to go through an attachment application process. Once approved, the owner of the pole (let's call them, PoleCo) can then require Company A to use specific contractors. 

If Company A rearranges or alters equipment that belongs to PoleCo or some other company that may have equipment on the pole, then they have to notify the owner of the equipment within 30 days. The company whose equipment has been altered, has another 30 days to conduct a field inspection with PoleCo.  

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If the pole requires complex work, then every company already on the pole gets 30 days notice to move their equipment. If those companies do not comply after 30 days, then Company A can perform the complex make-ready work. If there are any errors or problems from Company A's make-ready work, the companies already on the pole can recoup expenses. 

NES explained the basics of the current process and the idea behind OTMR in their newsletter. The public utility did not take a positive or negative position on the ordinance, choosing instead to focus on the final result:

"NES is dedicated and cooperative towards finding a resolution that will accommodate the efficient and effective deployment of broadband services that promote customer choice and competition and improve the lives of the citizens of Nashville."

The Incumbent Providers: Comcast and AT&T

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry has remained neutral on the policy, but has encouraged NES and the tech giants to reach a mutually beneficial solution for the good of the community. If the councilmembers approve the ordinance a final time, it will go to her desk for a signature.

AT&T may be preparing for a lawsuit against Nashville if this is the case. They already have an ongoing legal fight in Louisville, Kentucky, over OTMR. AT&T argues that the ordinance change would conflict with their contracts with NES and the union. The Nashville Metro Council Attorney Mike Jameson analyzed the ordinance for the Council and determined that Nashville clearly has the power to regulate the NES’s utility poles, but perhaps not the privately owned utility poles. 

Comcast, meanwhile, has claimed that the NES’s attachment application process is a source of delay (i.e. that Google Fiber is blaming the wrong process). Comcast is experiencing 90-100 days of processing for their applications to NES. The contractual obligation between Comcast and NES is 45 days to process applications, but Comcast has also “exponentially” exceeded the number of poles that they can apply for in a month under that contract, according to NES official Nick Thompson in the Tennessean.

Meanwhile, Councilmember Anthony Davis, a cosponsor of the OTMR ordinance also told The Tennessean that Google Fiber is not experiencing the permitting delays because it has already worked out a contract with NES. 

The Final Vote

In two weeks, the bill returns for a final vote on September 20, 2016. Councilmember Jeremy Elrod, one of the bill’s cosponsors, described the last vote on September 6, 2016 in The Tennessean:

"This is an extremely big step forward, an extremely big net positive for Nashville, for internet competition. … It increases competition, increases telecom and Internet investment for [us] as a city and our citizens as a whole."

Photo of utility workers courtesy of FEMA through a Creative Commons license.

Harlan Continues Bump Up To Fiber In Rural Iowa

With charming cornfields and bustling cities, Iowa is a Midwest hub of community networks. Harlan, the county seat of Shelby County, is located in west central Iowa. About 5,400 people live in the town, situated along the West Nishnabotna River. Back in the ‘90s, Harlan was one of several Iowa towns that built their own cable networks to deliver video and Internet services. In August, Harlan Municipal Utilities (HMU) announced it will continue upgrading to fiber, a project they started in 2012. Upon completion in early 2017, much of the town will have Internet access via fiber.

The Present: 2016-2017 Fiber Project

HMU announced the project on their website in early August. For more details, we spoke with Director of Marketing, Doug Hammer, previously a guest on our Community Broadband Bits podcast. 

During the fiber expansion, HMU will build out to the southern half of town, which is bounded by Highway 44 to the north, Highway 59 to the west, and the river to the east. The utility also intends to build out slightly north, into the center of town. The project will take approximately six months to complete. 

First, HMU will install conduit, the reinforced tubes which hold the fiber, to all their electric, gas, and water customers along major roads. Then, in the first quarter of 2017, they will bring fiber to homes and businesses. [Update: Those homes and businesses already receiving telecom services. Fiber to non-telecom customers will be connected if the property adds telecom services or when advanced metering applications are launched.]

The Past: Projects and Paperwork

By 1997, HMU was providing Internet service via a Hybrid Fiber-Coax (HFC) network. They financed the network with a grant from the Commerce Department and utility revenue bonds. Committed to affordable, high-quality service, the utility began to install fiber in certain areas in the north [Update: the northwest portion] of town in 2012.

A few years later, in May 2015, our Christopher Mitchell spoke with HMU representatives, including Hammer, at the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities (Community Broadband Bits Episode #151). They discussed how small ISPs handle paperwork and how the system can be improved. Small ISPs want to spend less time filling out forms and more time serving customers.

The Future: Smart-Grids and More

This fiber project provides the potential for new applications. Hammer specifically noted the possibility of developing a smart-grid for the electrical system, preventing outages and improving energy efficiency. Fiber connectivity can also boost home security systems and enable business to use new applications, such as cloud computing.

HMU will finish [this phase of] the project in 2017 and consider future fiber projects to better connect the northeastern section of town. For more information and updates about the project, including a map, check out the HMU website at HarlanNet.com.

Fort Collins Mayor on Fort Collins Fiber Future - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 211

Fort Collins is a thriving community of over 150,000 and the home of Colorado State University. Despite gorgeous vistas and many high tech jobs, Fort Collins basically has the same cable and DSL duopoly the majority of communities suffer from. But they are making plans for something better.

Mayor Wade Troxell joins us this week for episode 211 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to talk about their situation and planning process.

We talk about their need for better access and how they are committed to taking action even if they are not quite sure yet what it will be. They exempted themselves from the Previously-Qwest-But-Now-CenturyLink-Protection-Act that requires a referendum for the local government to introduce telecommunications competition... with 83 percent support.

We end our discussion by talking again about undergrounding utility assets - which took them many decades but is very nearly complete.

Watch a video of Mayor Troxell at the Digital Northwest - where I was moderating a panel.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

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

This show is 24 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."

Whip City Fiber Snaps To It: Yet Another Expansion In Westfield, MA

In the spring, Westfield, Massachusetts began to expand it’s Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, Whip City Fiber with a build-out to three additional neighborhoods. Earlier this month, Westfield Gas + Electric announced that they will soon expand even further to three more areas.

According to Dan Howard, General Manager of the utility, the demand for the symmetrical Internet access is strong:

"Every day we hear from residents of Westfield who are anxious for high-speed Internet to be available in their neighborhood," he said. "It's a great motivator for our entire team to hear how much customers are looking forward to this new service."

Gigabit residential access is $69.95 per month; businesses pay $84.95 for the same product but also get Wi-Fi for their establishments. Installation is free. If people in the new target areas sign up before August 31st, they will get a free month of service.

Like a growing number of communities, Westfield started with a pilot project in a limited area to test the level of interest for a FTTH network in their community. They are finding a high level of interest and gaining both confidence and the knowledge to continue the incremental expansion across the community. Other towns with the same approach include Owensboro, Kentucky; Madison, Wisconsin; and Holland, Michigan.

Westfield officials are asking interested residents and businesses to check out the pilot expansion page to determine if they are in the expansion area and to sign up for service. The page also explains how your Westfield neighborhood can become a fiberhood to get on the list for expansion.

For more about Whip City Fiber, listen to Chris interview Aaron Bean, Operations Manager, and Sean Fitzgerald, Customer Service Manager, from Westfield Gas + Electric. They spoke in June during episode #205 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

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.