It was inevitable, given the lessons of the last year, the innovations of online learning and medicine, that state Democrats would add access to the internet to a small number of regulated public utilities – along with water and electricity – basically guaranteeing every person in Connecticut the right to a speedy connection.
Already many Republicans, and some Democrats, would toss in the regulation of private companies – Twitter and Facebook — that provide social media.
But given near universal dissatisfaction with the cost and service of Eversource and United Illuminating, it’s probably worth seriously considering what good will come to consumers by adding Xfinity and Frontier to the mix of companies that already come under the oversight of the state’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.
In the case electricity, at least, PURA has the power not only to require minimum levels of service, it can also, in theory, force the utilities to swallow at least a portion of those costs — and that’s worked out well, said absolutely no one. As we reported last week, only 3 states had higher residential rates in the lower 48 states in January.
Adding to the unease you should be feeling is the fact that in the case of broadband, while federal law does allow the state of Connecticut to regulate minimal levels of acceptable service – to the point of allowing the state to require universal broadband access by 2027 as Gov. Lamont has proposed – federal law does not allow the state, at least presently, to limit how the cost of that service is passed on to consumers.
Picture PURA with the broad power to require all sorts of bells and whistles from private companies, who then send you the bill. Make no mistake, under the governor’s proposal — even without most of the bells and whistles — customers should expect to pay more to access the internet.
And as with TCI and limited immunity for police officers and other items on the progressive punch list, you have to wonder whether Connecticut – without significant legislative help on the federal level – can achieve a worthwhile solution on its own.
The federal government is sending the state a significant sum of money — $2.8 billion or so – a small portion of which can be used to pay for the cost of additional infrastructure. And there are a variety of temporary programs to help poorer Connecticut residents pay their internet bills, including a temporary FCC program that would pay between $50 and $75 dollars a month to lower-income residents to pay for internet service, and $100 for a tablet or other device to get on the net.
But let’s make sure we’re not robbing Peter to pay Paul, working diligently to make housing affordable, for example, while incrementally raising the cost of everything else.
In the case, of broadband you also have to wonder how many lower-income families (and not just lower-income families) have counted the costs and perhaps even wisely chosen to ‘cut the cord.’ Taken from that perspective, it kind of makes you wonder whether various temporary government subsidies amount to little more than government-subsidized come-ons for legacy utilities like Xfinity.
While not denying the aid of fast internet — which was amply illustrated over the last year — I think care should be taken before we obligate any resident, rich or poor, to use and pay for broadband in the home to connect to basic legal, medical, and educational services.
But setting aside whether it’s simply the right thing to do, clearly we don’t want to get in the way of ensuring the best education and economic and health outcomes for families in Waterbury, Norwich, New London, at a likely cost of pennies on the dollar compared to the outcomes of disconnection.
That said, if the idea, in part, is to raise everyone’s rates to fund broadband internet for well-to-do white-collar refugees who fled Manhattan high-rises last year for the rolling hills of Litchfield and now find themselves complaining about the comparatively slower service? Not so much.
I don’t want to be unfair, but I couldn’t help but get a whiff of that in Burt Cohen’s comments last week on extending service to western Connecticut. Cohen is the broadband policy coordinator at the Office of Consumer Counsel.
“People work where they live and they live where they work and a lot of people like that,” said Cohen. “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.”
Perhaps that’s a wise investment – pennies on the dollar for the rich rather than the poor – but let’s make sure we’re not robbing Peter to pay Croesus.