INITIATIVES

Drag your cursor around the wheel.  You will see a cornucopia of benefits made possible by a regional fiber optic network. These benefits do not arise from a new network alone; more will have to be done in every area.  But a dazzling new broadband network will create opportunities around every corner in ways that cannot be matched by any other initiative. At a minimum a fiber optic network will fill in the substantial coverage gaps left by current networks, pump up real estate values, and lay the groundwork for future telemedicine facilities that our aging population will clearly need.  But what the network can do for economic development, education, and the general business of restoring our young population cannot be overstated.  We need it sooner, not later.

THE NETWORK INITIATIVE

Current Network Suppliers

We currently obtain wireline data connections from cable television companies, Frontier, and satellite services.  Frontier’s network in our region supports 6 mbps or less downstream (sometimes much less) for the most part, a speed unable to stream an HD video channel.  While one satellite service is now up to 25 mbps, the usual rates are much less, and satellite delay (more than half a second round trip) kills many good applications. We have three CATV companies: Comcast, Cablevision, now owned by a French company Altice, and Charter, which recently swallowed Time Warner cable to become almost as large as Comcast.  All operate as monopolies in towns they serve. They have each refused to connect many homes in the region, they have limited network capacity to serve future applications, and when they decide to upgrade their networks they will almost certainly upgrade our region last.

Actual Coverage

By official records there are just over 76,000 homes in our region of 25 towns.  In a recent study commissioned by the state of Connecticut it was found that 65% of homes in our region subscribe to a cable television Internet service, the only service in our region that conforms to the FCC definition of broadband—25 mbps downstream, 3 mbps upstream.  Another 16% connect to the Internet through Frontier DSL services, most of which are 6 mbps downstream or less.  Some 11% of our homes use satellite services, largely (we assume) because they had no other option.  Some 8% of our homes, roughly 6100, have no service at all.  This means that 35% of homes in our region—around 27,000—have inadequate Internet access, or none.  That means that 27,000 homes, or in the order of 60,000 people, in our region are deprived of an essential asset.  What if that many people were denied roads and electricity?  We would be considered a third world country.

What To Do

While we are not privy to the plans of our incumbent carriers, their past behavior strongly suggests that (1) they have no intention of serving the 35% of our region that are underserved or unserved, (2) they have no intention of upgrading their networks to fiber optics to the home, (3) the CATV companies will not attempt to compete with each other even though they could, legally, (4) Frontier will never be competitive in our region, and (5) they have no business or community interest in the well-being of our region.  The reason is simple: there is not enough incremental revenue to justify the substantial incremental costs.  The numbers just don’t run.  So we must do what many other rural towns have done in America over the last few years. We must do it ourselves.  Our municipalities must fund and likely own some or all of the next generation network to bring our region up to date, and point ourselves to a more successful future.

The Basic Idea

Three models have emerged for municipal fiber optic networks: (1) the municipality owns and operates the network, usually through a municipal electric utility and often with federal or state subsidies; (2) a private partner such as Google installs and operates a network with substantial inducements; and (3) the municipality installs and owns the wiring on the poles, a private partner installs home wiring and electronics and other network electronics. We know of only two cities that have adopted the last of these options, but it is the one most attractive to us. We do not have electric utilities, we are not getting subsidies, and our thin housing footprint makes a fully private arrangement infeasible. We need to treat networks like we treat roads.

1.For our purposes we need to think of networks divided into the following pieces: (1) fiber optic cabling on the poles or underground (no electronics, just wire): (2) drop-wire from the pole to the premises, an Optical Network Termination (ONT), other electronics, and in-house wiring; (3) an Optical Line Termination (OLT) at the other end, usually in a cluster with other electronics and often in an unmanned Hut, and (4) back-haul, fiber optic connections from the Hut to resources such as the Internet. The reason for isolating the pole wiring from electronics is that wiring without electronics can secure loans with forty year terms, whereas wire with electronics will be less than twenty.

2.We propose a three-way partnership. Municipalities will own the trunk wiring on the poles, but no electronics. One or more private organizations will install and own drop wiring and all premises electronics, and huts at the other end. We will then use the Connecticut Education Network (CEN) for back-haul. CEN has a point of presence in most if not all of our municipalities, either at a school or a library. The private partner will also provide operations and maintenance, to be paid for through Internet access fees. The private partner will also pay for lease costs from CEN and, likely but not certain, a small lease fee to the municipalities for use of its wire.

3.Municipalities will thereby get a universal fiber optic network for the least amount of funding in practical terms, with the least monthly cost per home. Private partners will incur most of its capital expense when a customer has subscribed, reducing their capital risks considerably. CEN needs more customers; if it becomes the back-haul of choice for many municipalities, it can substantially increase its services to schools, libraries, municipal departments, and other natural customers for a network that has been cut off from state funding. Furthermore, all partners have skin in the game, a good condition for working together over the long haul.

4. For reasons we explain below, we are now recommending that one or more municipalities in our region take the role of pioneer and develop a universal municipal network along these lines. Under current state law each such municipality will have to form an electric utility to do so (revisions to the law that will remove this burden are in congress now, but one never knows about these things). When a few municipalities have networks up and running, we will form a cooperative under state law rules that will take over many of the obligations assumed by municipalities in this arrangement. Norfolk has agreed to be first and has a program underway.

Status

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.

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