A little background first. Our target from the beginning was a regional network over most if not all of our 25 municipalities to realize economies of scale and have enough prospective homes to attract private partners. We got support from most elected officials in the region, but each had reservations about getting their own communities to pay the municipal share. But we also heard from prospective partners that they would not deal with a group of individual towns, insisting instead on a single regional, independent organization with which to work. There is no legal precedent in Connecticut for such an organization. It was also felt by many that getting towns to agree on terms and conditions would be very difficult.
We were still on this track until a May 2018 decision from the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) denied municipalities access to utility poles for commercial broadband networks under the one law that authorized it “for any purpose.” We have participated in litigation opposing the PURA ruling, but years may pass before a decision is reached, and the most likely decision will just start the clock again rather than restoring municipal rights to utility poles. Our current legislature has a bill in process that may straighten the matter out, but PURA could still plug the works if it chose to, and we are far from certain that the bill will survive opposition from all incumbent carriers, led by Frontier. Indeed, as of early May the bill has yet to be called for a vote. It is worth saying that this bill, which follows FCC precedents, if passed could take a year out of the construction process and hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs just for one town.
It happens that Connecticut, like Massachusetts, has within its municipal electric utility law a provision entitling municipal electric utilities to install communications networks on utility poles. Many towns in western Massachusetts have used their state law to construct fiber optic networks for Internet access. While the Connecticut law has never been used to actually create an electric utility (the six municipal electric utilities in Connecticut were constructed before the law went into effect), we are led to believe that any individual town is entitled to form a small electric utility (a solar array sending power into the grid may be enough) and, within that structure, install a fiber optic network on utility poles. So this is the direction we are now taking.
However, the barrier to starting at a regional level now rose to insuperable heights. We have decided instead to work with one or more individual towns to prime the pump, as it were. If one town can put it all together, it can form a blueprint for the remaining towns, along with an emotional incentive not to be left behind. The first selectman from Norfolk, the town’s EDC chair, and a group of citizens who have been advocating a fiber optic network for some time have launched such an effort. It happens that a group had already been formed to study a municipal electric utility. The Norfolk plan of attack then is to proceed on parallel paths, one to get a municipal electric utility formed, the other to secure community support for a fiber optic network organized along the business model given above.
Norfolk has received positive figures from energy consultants about viability of a solar field on Norfolk town property. It has received an informal quotation from a prospective private partner that shows economic viability and a willingness to take the operation and maintenance risks. The Norfolk Broadband Committee is poised to start securing community support for the program in June. We could have a vote in September. The plan, if implemented, would connect everyone in Norfolk who subscribed (and that could be everyone) to a symmetric gigabit service, first in the state and unique in the country as a business model.
This was written in the first week of May of 2019. We will update this section as we have definitive news to report.