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Connecticut Communities Want Better Internet Access - Community Broadband Bits Episode 118

While in Springfield, Massachusetts for the Broadband Communities Municipal Broadband and Economic Development event, I met several of the people that have been working on an initiative that aims to bring better Internet access to many in Connecticut. Two of them, Connecticut Consumer Counsel Elin Katz and Broadband Policy Coordinator Bill Vallee join me this week for episode 118 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Three cities have already issued an RFQ to begin the process of evaluating what options are available to them in improving Internet access for their residents and businesses. New Haven, Stamford, and West Hartford kicked the initiative off but others may soon join.

We also discuss how Connecticut has greatly simplified the process of pole attachments to encourage investment from any interested provider.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 22 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"

Community Broadband Media Roundup - September 19, 2014

The media is picking up on Chairman Wheeler’s notice to big telecom: 4Mbps is not going to cut it anymore. Wheeler said speeds closer to 10Mbps should be classified as high speed. A good step, but by the end of this Media Roundup, you’ll be questioning what that paltry 10 Mbps can do for communities…

Michael Nielsen with Motley Fool pointed out reasons that big telecom should be scared: competition, competition, competition. Meanwhile, AT&T patted itself on the back because they say 98% of its customers have download speeds of 6 Mbps or higher (so they claim). So yes, congratulations are in order, in the most minor way possible. 

Want another reason big telecom should be scared? Free Marketeers are on board with Net Neutrality. From James J. Heaney: 

“… it seems odd for a conservative – whether an old-guard big-business Bush-era conservative or a new-guard Paulite libertarian conservative – to support Net Neutrality.

Except I do Internet for a living, and I am one of the lucky ones who actually knows what Net Neutrality means and what it’s responding to.  And, folks, I’m afraid that, while L. Gordon Crovitz and Rich Lowry are great pundits with a clear understanding of how Washington and the economy work, they don’t seem to understand how the Internet works, which has led them to some wrong conclusions.”

AT&T/DirecTV Merger:

Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin reported on our comments about the AT&T/DirecTV merger, noting what the merger could mean for aging infrastructure:

“AT&T’s proposed $48.5 billion acquisition of DirecTV will reduce competition for TV subscribers, increase AT&T’s “incentive to discriminate against online video services,” and give AT&T more reasons to neglect its aging copper network, consumer advocacy groups argue in a petition to deny the merger.”

The Hill also published an article citing ILSR and Public Knowledge’s comments:

‘"[the organizations] told the agency in a petition that the merger would be bad for consumers, especially against the backdrop of other media deals such as Comcast’s bid to buy Time Warner Cable. “Companies may think they need greater scale to enter new markets or keep up with their rivals. But unless they can show how this would benefit consumers, it is immaterial,” they wrote. “If anything, the FCC should be more skeptical of mergers that come in waves, since in the aggregate consumers suffer from a more highly concentrated, centralized marketplace, with fewer choices, homogenous offerings and increased likelihood of coordinated effects.”’

Internet Access Competition Update:

Did you know that communities that have a service provider that offers a 1 Gig service have a per capita GDP that’s 1.1 percent higher than other communities that have little or no gigabit services? That’s the report from Sean Buckley on Fierce Telecom this week.

But cities that didn’t win the “gigabit google lottery” are taking action on their own. According to Denise Linn of Next City, Louisiville has identified three companies that will invest in a gig in areas of town. 

“Though Louisville’s future network will not be supported with public funds (in contrast to projects in Wilson, North Carolina or Lafayette, Louisiana, for example), initial momentum certainly came from the bottom up. Demand for faster speeds was fostered and articulated by the city’s residents, academics and the business community.”

Of course we think a publicly-owned network is a better bet for the city, but this is a good step.

Meantime, a conference on gigabit networks sparked three communities in Connecticut to explore their options. They modeled their request after Louisville.  Fierce Telecom and The Westminster Dispatch had the story: 

"As soon as we started the conversation about gig networks, we heard from businesses, universities, high-tech start-ups, mayors and first selectmen – really such a variety of stakeholders – about how greater Internet speeds at lower costs are essential to their functioning," Katz said in a West Hartford Patch article. "We knew it was an important economic development tool, but we've learned gig networks are also essential for medicine, precision manufacturing, education, e-government, many different people in different sectors clamoring for gig networks."

Jason Myers reported that the initiative is “open to any and all municipalities in Connecticut." Organizers hope that network partners will be encouraged by more cities joining the initiative. 

Big News from the land of 10,000 lakes: Joan Engebretson reported in Next City that Paul Bunyan Communications — a co-op in Northern Minnesota will be home to the nation’s largest public gigabit service as early as 2015. The “GigaZone” will cover about five thousand square miles. 

“Expanding broadband is a great equalizing force for boosting rural economies. Today you don't need to live off a major highway or in a bustling city to find a good job, start a new business, or get a high quality education but today you do need a high-speed Internet connection," said Senator Amy Klobuchar, who has championed the effort of rural broadband access at the national level since being elected.”

Seattle’s new Chief Technology Officer has broadband on his mind. GovTech profiled Michael Mattmiller this week

“The Federal Communication Commission is now considering altering the definition of broadband Internet -- increasing the speed from 4 Mbps to 10 Mbps. For a city to keep up with the changing standards, it must consider new avenues, Mattmiller said, like eliminating red tape. The city council is now reviewing proposed changes to the Seattle Department of Transportation’sDirector’s Rule 2-2009, which made it difficult for broadband providers besides Comcast to develop their networks in the city.”

And finally, we thought Santa Monica’s public network was fast before— now they’re raising the bar yet again. The city now boasts a 100 Gigabit per second fiber network.

“This is only the latest milestone in a long line of advancements Santa Monica has made in the broadband arena. We are considered a leader in social tech and have leveraged our fiber optic network to advance free Wi-Fi in public parks and major bus routes, provide internet to our libraries, and connect our schools and college locations. These efforts have contributed to education, economic development, and provide impressive Internet speeds for large conferences and events. We are proud to be the 1st, 100 Gigabit municipal network in the U.S.,” said Jory Wolf, the City of Santa Monica’s Chief Information Officer.

Let that sink in.

AT&T and ALEC Take Aim at Connecticut for Third Year in a Row

StopTheCap! reports there are three bills in the Connecticut General Assembly that, if passed, will leave little or no protections for customers of plain old telephone service who encounter difficulties with service. AT&T and ALEC back these bills for the third year in a row.

Such bills are not new to our readers who often see our reports on large corporate providers that use state legislators as vehicles to shed regulations. Phil Dampier from StopThe Cap! summarizes all three bills:

HB 6401: House Bill 6401 strips the Public Utilities Review Authority (PURA) of their ability to regulate Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone services. An emerging market, this bill creates deregulation for the sake of deregulation.

HB 6402: House Bill 6402 eliminates the right of regulators to oversee AT&T to make sure it has some form of accountability to the public. The section on annual audits has been gutted, making it impossible to protect the public from rate-fixing. More importantly, it includes a provision to allow AT&T to end service to any customer it wants upon 30 days’ written notice. [PDF of the Nonpartisan Bill Summary available from the Connecticut General Assembly]

SB 888: Senate Bill 888 has an ALEC-drafted provision that allows cell phone towers to be built on public lands on a presumption that the will of telecommunications companies is in the interest of the public good.

As we saw in Kentucky, concerned citizen groups will not take the change lying down, joining forces to form the Don't Hang Up on Connecticut coalition. AARP Connecticut leads the charge to motivate seniors and their families, a group traditionally dependent on landlines. George Gombossy, from the New Britain Herald, spoke with John Erlingheauser, AARP's advocacy director:

Erlingheuser said his organization is particularly concerned with three elements of the proposal: Allowing AT&T to stop providing any of its services with a 60-day notice to the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

Limiting the state’s quality of services standards “which cover such things as responding to trouble reports and service outages.” And a halt to annual audit of AT&T’s business in Connecticut in which the company reports on its investments in infrastructure and modernization.

The three, he said, will result in AT&T spending less on traditional phone system and more on its cellular and Internet-based systems.

Connecticut Seal

The list of supporting legislators and AT&T lobbyists includes ALEC chairs on both the federal and state level.

The New Haven Register also reported on the measure:

“If AT&T is allowed to drop service in unprofitable areas at their sole discretion, if they’re allowed to let service outages drag on for weeks with no consequences, if they’re allowed to jack up rates — of course they will,” Daniel Ravizza of Connecticut Citizen Action Group said in a statement. “‘Trust me’ is not a good enough guarantee for Connecticut consumers.

We interviewed Harold Feld twice for the Broadband Bits podcast and he talked about the transition to new voice technology and his expectations from AT&T. Feld described AT&T's business practices and history of investment, or lack thereof - that history that supports Ravizza's concern.

We will be following this story and hope to soon report on the coalition's success. For more on how Kentucky citizens stopped similar legislation, you can listen to Christopher interview Mimi Pickering and Tom FitzGerald in episode #44 of the Broadband Bits Podcast.  

Connecticut Power Outage Shows Superiority of Community Ownership

Rob Cox, a writer for Reuters, has delved into the disappointing response of some investor-owned utilities in Connecticut following the recent blizzard, noting the better performance of muni power companies. Hurricane Irene recently revealed the similar superiority of muni electrics compared to the investor-owned in Massachusetts, prompting us to note the parallels with Wired West's initiative in Western Massachusetts. They have created an electric light coop to build a next-generation fiber-optic network out to everyone in the area.

And on the same day that Longmont embraced locally owned broadband in Colorado, nearby Boulder started the process of kicking Xcel out in favor of an electric grid that is accountable to the public.

So let's see what the New York Times has to say about municipal ownership of infrastructure. They begin by noting the many ways Connecticut Light and Power (the subsidiary of Northeast, an investor owned utility presently consolidating with another large IOU) has cut its maintenance spending over the last few years -- leaving many more power lines vulnerable to the tree-bending blizzard.

There’s even a near-perfect model of how Connecticut Light and Power could have done the job better. Norwich, Conn., a city of 40,000, has owned its own electric utility, as well as those for sewage, gas and water, for 107 years. Norwich Public Utilities’ customers pay, on average, a bit less than Connecticut Light and Power’s. Yet after this past weekend’s snow dump, power was out for only about 450 of its 22,000 customers — and for no more than an hour. As of Thursday morning, nearly half a million Connecticut Light and Power customers were still waiting for the lights to go on.

That’s not luck, either. After Irene hit, just 13 percent of the city’s customers lost their power for more than a day. Within three days, the whole of Norwich had been restored. It took more than a week for Connecticut Light and Power to fully restore power.

To reiterate, the publicly owned system is cheaper, more reliable, and responds more quickly in emergencies. Sounds like efficiency.

That makes it seem odd that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has tended to appear alongside Connecticut Light and Power’s Mr. Butler and to support the utility, even though far more customers lost power than should have and restoration proceeded too slowly. There’s solid numerical evidence to justify Mr. Malloy’s berating Connecticut Light and Power and calling for Mr. Butler’s head on behalf of the citizens of his state.

And yet, we see the exact same response from elected officials in the face of a less efficient private sector -- they blindly embrace the private sector, pretending we have no other options.

Connecticut Light and Power Logo

In contrast to Connecticut Light and Power, Norwich’s electric unit last year increased operations and maintenance spending by 11 percent, to $2.9 million. Put another way, in 2010 Norwich allocated about $132 a customer to this line item in its accounts. Connecticut Light and Power reported maintenance, unadjusted for deferred expenses, of $96.5 million, or around $78 per client.

Well, that is curious. The publicly owned utility is able to charge less for power while spending more per ratepayer. And we know that more money from the local utility stays in the community whereas the absentee-owned companies result in fund flight.

It helps that the Norwich utilities are not slaves to the profit motive — though they hand 10 percent of gross revenue to the city.

Whoops! There goes the whole "they have an advantage because they don't pay taxes BS argument...

Last year, before paying this slice to the city, the electricity division made just a 3.6 percent operating profit margin on its $52.3 million of revenue. The Connecticut Light and Power division of Northeast, meanwhile, booked $3 billion of revenue last year and reported an operating margin nearly five times the size of Norwich’s. But it surely also helps that Norwich Public Utilities’ general manager, 12 linemen and five commissioners live in the community, drive the local roads, see the overhanging branches and bump into their customers at the Norwichtown Mall. That’s a rare kind of accountability.

It shouldn't be a "rare" kind of accountability if we recognized the limits of where the private sector excels and encouraged it to "tend to its knitting" as my grandma says.

Photo, courtesy of autowitch on flickr.