BRISTOL - There‚Äôs an obstacle in the way of Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu‚Äôs vision for creating a citywide high speed fiber optic internet network, an obstacle that the state legislature or the courts have the power to remove.
In 2018, the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulation Agency ruled that municipalities could not use utility poles for installing their own fiber networks.
The state‚Äôs Office of Consumer Counsel and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities have filed appeals of the decision in Connecticut Superior Court.
‚ÄúAt issue is the permitted use by municipalities of a space on each utility pole or conduit that is legally reserved for municipal or other public use, a space known as the ‚Äėmunicipal gain.‚Äô While this statutory authority allowing municipalities to have a free attachment place on utility poles was first granted by the state General Assembly in 1905, the Connecticut Legislature revised the statute in 2013 so that it could be used by the municipality or other public user ‚Äėfor any purpose,‚Äô‚ÄĚ according to a press release from OCC.
Scott Smith, who heads the Bristol‚Äôs IT department for the city and schools, explained it this way: ‚ÄúThe city, by law, has space on every utility pole for its free use for any purpose. So we could use that municipal gain space the law allows to build our fiber network, and not have to pay fees to Eversource for using their poles.‚ÄĚ
That is, until the telecommunications companies got PURA to reinterpret the law to say ‚Äúfor any municipal purpose,‚ÄĚ he continued. ‚ÄúThat means we could use it for our own network [connecting city departments and schools] but we can‚Äôt use it to provide a network to the public.‚ÄĚ
A lot of states have laws prohibiting this kind of thing, due to lobbying by the telecommunications industry, Smith said. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre now being overturned.‚ÄĚ
In the most recent legislative session, the House Energy and Technology Committee introduced SB 846: An Act Concerning The Municipal Gain, The Preparation Of Utility Poles And Enterprise Funds For Municipal Broadband Services.
The bill would have allowed municipal gain to be used for municipalities to establish their own broadband internet service for the public. It stalled in the legislative process in mid-May, with the regular legislative session adjourning June 5.
Zoppo-Sassu considers the PURA ruling, and the legislature‚Äôs inaction on SB 846, to be a temporary glitch.
‚ÄúThat doesn‚Äôt mean it can‚Äôt come back next year and it doesn‚Äôt mean next year we won‚Äôt be better positioned if it does,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not something that should be considered derailing.‚ÄĚ