Lamont Proposal Would Raise the Bar for Broadband — and Customer Rates?

Gov. Ned Lamont is proposing to give the state regulators greater control over broadband internet providers to further his administration’s goal of ensuring universal access to high-speed internet by 2027. Under this proposal the state’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, or PURA, would have oversight over the handling of consumer complaints, could order expansions of infrastructure, and regulate the general operation of the providers, which in Connecticut include Xfinity and Frontier.

Unlike with other utilities regulated by PURA, however, like electricity or water, federal law does not allow states to regulate the cost of broadband — meaning that any additional investments or changes ordered by state regulators could be passed along directly to consumers.

State Rep. David Arconti, D-Danbury, co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, raised concerns to CT Examiner that the additional oversight would have the unintended consequence of raising customer rates.

The current version of the bill would set aside $2.95 million in 2022 and $2.85 million in 2023 to create broadband maps of the state, develop service metrics for broadband speed and broaden the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority’s jurisdiction over the operations of internet service providers.

Burt Cohen, staff attorney and broadband policy coordinator at the state’s Office of Consumer Counsel, said the bill’s importance has been highlighted by the publication of a report by BroadbandNow, a data aggregation company comparing local internet options, that estimates approximately 386,700 people in the state lack access to broadband, more than ten times the number estimated previously. 

Under the governor’s proposal,  the state would map the location of those individuals without broadband access.

The legislation also puts aside $469,399 in FY 22 and $381,452 in FY 23 to develop detailed maps of broadband availability and develop metrics for upload and download speeds across the state. 

The Federal Communications Commission currently requires download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of three megabits per second. The governor’s bill, in contrast, would set a target download speed of 1000 megabits per second and a target upload speed of 200 megabits per second. 

Under the proposal, PURA would then be able to require companies to build out or expand infrastructure into areas where it does not currently exist. 

A representative for the telecommunications industry willing to speak on background said that he believed the additional state regulation was unnecessary, given that the industry already has to meet federal regulatory standards. He also said he believed the report’s estimates were inflated, and that the vast majority of Connecticut residents have access to broadband. 

Arconti said the committee was talking with a variety of groups, including broadband providers, to decide on the best way to make broadband more widely available across the state. 

Arconti said that one idea under consideration is a broadband access grant program covering part of the cost using money from the federal government. He said that broadband providers would also be required to pay a portion of the cost. 

“The whole goal of the bill is buildout,” said Arconti. “How do we get the last mile?”  

“They don’t want to go back to the big skyscrapers” 

According to Cohen, broadband access was already essential, but it took a pandemic to make it a policy priority.

“It’s only been over the last year and a third that the policy makers across the country have had to focus on this,” he said.  

Cohen said that PURA already has the authority to regulate cable companies and broadband providers for matters of safety and consumer protection.  Cohen said that most of the bill’s language would rather make sure that all companies — telecommunications companies, video service providers, and broadband service providers — were regulated in the same way.

“Right now we don’t have that,” said Cohen. “We have a hodgepodge of regulatory provisions that apply to some companies but not others.” 

PURA Chair Marissa Gillett testified at a public hearing in February that the agency has not “substantively” regulated companies providing internet broadband, given what she called  a “general trend toward deregulation in the area of cable and video services over the past several decades.”   

Under the proposal, which includes $3.23 million to hire 10 additional staff workers for the agency over two years, PURA will be responsible for handling consumer complaints about broadband service and outages, and can impose penalties for service interruptions. 

Cohen said that customers and providers dealt with “significant” service outages after Tropical Storm Isaias. In February, Altice USA Inc, which owns Optimum, paid $72,000 to New York State after the state’s Department of Public Service found that the company failed in its preparations and response to the storm. Cohen said that western Connecticut experienced the same issues. 

The governor’s proposal would require telecommunications companies to restore service within 24 hours after an outage and to compensate customers for any outage that lasts longer.

Arconti said  he had concerns about that 24-hour window, and that after a storm, telecommunications companies would have to wait to make repairs on utility poles until after electric companies have finished work and deem the poles safe to climb. 

The governor’s proposal also would require state regulators to open an inquiry into the resiliency of broadband infrastructure statewide for future storms.

“It is critical for the state regulators to have a handle on the resiliency of those networks,” said Cohen.

According to Cohen, broadband might become an important factor in decisions to remain in Connecticut, particularly for the people in western Connecticut who were previously working in New York City.

“People work where they live and they live where they work and a lot of people like that,” he said. “They don’t want to go back to the big skyscrapers. The idea is to keep them here, and one of the ways of doing that is to make sure they have universal robust broadband in the state of Connecticut.”

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