Legislative efforts to further regulate broadband internet as a utility fell flat out of fear that the new rules could make Connecticut the target of a lawsuit. But a less ambitious bill passed earlier this month will allow the state to create detailed maps of broadband infrastructure and establish a grant program for companies willing to expand into underserved areas.
State Rep. David Arconti, D-Danbury, co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, said that federal rules prevented state lawmakers from creating stronger oversight on the state level.
“Companies were going to take it to court,” said Arconti.
The original bill would have given the state’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, or PURA, oversight over the handling of consumer complaints and allowed them to regulate the general operation of the providers, which in Connecticut include Xfinity and Frontier. But federal law currently does not allow states to regulate the cost to consumers.
Arconti said the extra oversight would have meant customers had to pay more for internet service.
“I think they took a lot of the guts out of that bill”
On the federal level Congress is considering a few laws that could affect broadband internet service.
One bill supported by Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, would set aside $94 billion to build out broadband infrastructure in underserved areas. A second bill, called the BRIDGE Act, would provide $40 billion to improve broadband access and require companies to offer at least one affordable option.
But these bills would not extend regulatory power to the states.
Last week, a federal judge in New York blocked a law passed by the state legislature that would limit the amount broadband companies can charge low-income residents. The judge said that the state could not regulate “within the field of interstate communications,” since that falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission.
Connecticut lawmakers eliminated other provisions originally included in the bill. Arconti said that the one-touch-make-ready provision, which would allow a more streamlined process of attaching cables to utility poles, was removed due to safety concerns.
Legislators also removed language that would have required the companies to restore broadband service 24 hours of an outage. Language would have required PURA to evaluate the resiliency of broadband infrastructure in the case of a storm. Both Western Connecticut and New York saw service outages after Tropical Storm Isaias last year.
In a press conference on Thursday, Gov. Ned Lamont said he wished the legislature had been more “aggressive” on the broadband legislation, particularly around building infrastructure in underserved communities.
“I think they took a lot of the guts out of that bill,” said Lamont.
Lamont was an early proponent of the broader regulations, but said he was prepared to support the version passed by the legislature.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Lamont. “It’s sort of a two-foot step, not a full yard, but we’re making progress.”
What has changed
The new bill does grant state regulators oversight over the buildout of broadband infrastructure along public highways. The legislation also mandates that the Office of Policy and Management create detailed maps of broadband availability across the state. The maps are supposed to show upload and download speeds, pockets where broadband infrastructure doesn’t exist, and places where broadband is available but people have not yet adopted it. The maps will be more granular than those created by the Federal Communications Commission, which may overestimate broadband availability across the country.
“Increasing the granularity of broadband mapping is a critical step in the process of ensuring that all Connecticut residents have reliable and affordable access to broadband,” said Max Reiss, spokesperson from the Governor’s Office. “We must accurately measure the problem to properly address it.”
The bill also creates a grant program through the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection with federal funding. $10 million is available in grants for the year 2022, and another $10 million is going toward curb-to-home buildout for low-income and multi-family dwellings.
Arconti said priority will be given to proposals that bring broadband to 25 targeted distressed municipalities across the state where no service providers are offering services above a threshold download and upload speed. That includes larger cities like Bridgeport and Waterbury as well as smaller towns like Montville, Sprague and Torrington.
Broadband providers and municipalities can apply for funding through the department and would pay 20 percent of the buildout costs.
Without the additional regulatory framework, Arconti said he saw the grants and the detailed mapping as their best option for getting more people connected to the internet.
“Broadband may, at the end of the day, become more like a regulated utility,” he said. “It’s not there yet.”