NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) - The president of the union representing workers at Frontier Communications says state and municipal government leaders should not be involved in any effort to bring ultra-high speed Internet to Connecticut, calling it a job for the private sector.
That effort, which has been underway for about a year, has been dubbed the “CT Gig Project” and is being supported by some high-profile political leaders at the state and local levels, including New Haven Mayor Toni Harp. It would allow businesses and residents to transfer data 100 times faster than they can now.
But according to Bill Henderson, president of Local 1298 of the Communications Workers of America, building such a network “is something that should be done by the private sector.”
“What they’re talking about here is insane,” he said. “They want to charge every home a fee to pay for this, whether the person living there wants the service or not.”
Proponents of the CT Gig Project say they view a statewide, ultra-high speed broadband network in the same vein as other types of infrastructure that benefit the entire community. And that infrastructure, they say, is paid for by everybody in the community, not just those who use it.
Connecticut Comptroller Kevin Lembo said the state is merely trying to prevent Connecticut from being left behind at a time when the national and world economies are becoming technology driven and require access to reliable and superfast Internet service that can move large amounts of data quickly and at a cost-effective price.
“If we don’t get this right, we lose,” Lembo said. “One advantage that having the state do this is that it is not a corporate entity that has to live or die by shareholders and the expectations of Wall Street. Sometimes the role of government is to prod the marketplace and this is Connecticut’s government serving as a sharp stick because we need to figure out where we want the state to be in 20 or 30 years and determine how we’re going to get there.”
If the private sector was meeting the needs of businesses and residents for faster Internet, there would be no interest in the Gig Project, said Elin Swanson Katz, Connecticut’s consumer counsel.
“We have over 100 communities interested in this,” Katz said. “I think that’s pretty indicative of how people feel.”
Ben Berkowitz, founder and chief executive officer of New Haven-based SeeClickFix, said that from his perspective, “price is secondary” to the ability to transmit large amounts of data quickly and reliably.
“When you’re developing code and sending it through the Internet, that’s what is important,” Berkowitz said of speed and reliability. SeeClickFix provides a communications platform for citizens to report non-emergency issues, and governments to track, manage, and reply, he said.
“We’re ultimately making communities better through transparency, collaboration, and cooperation,” Berkowitz said.
Officials at SeeClickFix haven’t been really satisfied by any of the existing broadband providers in the market, he said.
“To date, the private sector hasn’t done it,” Berkowitz said. “Existing providers are what I like to call an apathetic oligarchy.”
Katz said luring high technology companies has been a focus of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration in order to promote long-term employment growth. It is essential to have widely available access to ultra-high speed Internet in order to attract those companies, she said.
“High tech businesses feel that high speed Internet access is too expensive,” Katz said. “And without it, it takes too long to transmit the data that is part of their business.”
Henderson sees the Gig Project as a power grab by Katz. He questions how Katz’s office, which has the primary function of representing the interest of the ratepayers of regulated utilities, can maintain its objectivity.
In the first of two separate interviews conducted over the past month, Henderson initially said he was going to publicly call for her resignation. Henderson had slightly softened his stance regarding Katz in an interview conducted on Aug. 7.
“I think that at the very least she should not be reappointed when her term is up,” he said. “I think she’s already proven that by taking this advocacy role, she has lost the ability to be an effective watchdog.”
Some of what triggered Henderson’s ire was the creation last month of the Connecticut State Broadband Office.
The new entity is a division of Katz’s office and is being created as a result of the passage of Public Act 15-5 by the Connecticut General Assembly during this year’s legislative session. Henderson is particularly upset over the inclusion of about $550,000 in the biennial budget Connecticut’s legislature finalized in a special session just more than a month ago.
“They put a rat in the budget implementer bill at the last minute that didn’t leave any time for debate or discussion,” he said. “At a time when the state is looking to reduce the size of its deficit, they shouldn’t be spending money on something like this.”
Lembo said the expenditure for the broadband office is spread over two years and is designed to allow the new department to do survey work and fund its day-to-day operations.
Katz said the Connecticut State Broadband Office will add only one new employee to her staff and said the funding was in the state’s budget all along, not added at the last minute.
“It’s my job to represent the interest of the consumer, not the union or Frontier Communications,” she said.
Frontier officials say Henderson acted independently of the company in taking his concerns public.
“Frontier is a substantial economic contributor to the State of Connecticut with nearly 3,000 employees statewide, and with over 1,000 employees based in New Haven,” the company said in a written statement when asked for comment. “We are actively engaged in discussions with the City of New Haven and other municipalities regarding the development of a project established through a public-private partnership, to develop ultra-high speed internet applications. We believe that such a collaboration is the best way to ensure Connecticut’s economic and technological future and bridge the digital divide.”
State Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said Katz’s role in overseeing the state’s broadband office is entirely appropriate.
“OCC is supposed to deal with consumer complaints. So I think it’s exactly as it should be,” Bye said.
But Henderson is not alone in his belief that government shouldn’t get involved in expanding the availability of ultra-high-speed Internet. Paul Cianelli, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts-based New England Cable & Telecommunications Association, invokes the specter of an effort the town of Groton made to have its municipally owned electric and water company provide cable television, telephone and high speed Internet access.
Groton Utilities began providing those services via an entity called Thames Valley Communications in the middle of the last decade. But after eight years of losing money at the rate of $2 million per year and having gone nearly $30 million in debt, the network was sold to private investors in early 2013 for $550,000.
That has left $27.5 million in debt for Groton Utilities to pay off over a 14-year period.
Cianelli’s trade group represents the interests of five cable television providers in the state that also provide broadband Internet service. And he contends that what happened in Groton, could happen elsewhere in Connecticut if the Gig Project moves ahead.
“It’s more than possible, it’s likely,” he said. “Forewarned is forearmed. This is not like operating a sewer or a road system.”
Bye has been one of the supporters of the Gig Project since it was launched last year. She acknowledges that “things did not go well in Groton,” but says there are plenty of other communities around the country that have benefited from making ultra-high speed Internet widely available.
“Since Groton, there has been Kansas City, Chattanooga and Austin,” Bye said. “Communities are doing this to try and distinguish themselves, which is what I think Mayor Harp is trying to do in New Haven.”
New Haven Comptroller Darryl Jones has traveled around the country with Harp, looking at what having super-fast Internet has meant to those communities.
“We see an opportunity to bring jobs to the city, not just in building the network, but afterward,” Jones said. He estimated that deploying the Gig Project network would mean 300 or 400 construction jobs that could provide New Haven residents with several years’ worth of work.
“Take that across the state and you’re talking about thousands of jobs,” Jones said.
He said that having the ultra-high speed network in place will also result in reducing what businesses and residential customers currently spend on broadband. Jones estimated that deploying a Gig Project network would reduce the amount people pay for Internet access to a range of $15 to $24 a month, which he said would represent a savings of as much as two-thirds from what he pays to get broadband and cable television.
“We’re increasing people’s disposable income by reducing their costs,” he said.
Cianelli said the kind of savings that Jones referenced would be wiped out by what it will cost to build a Gig Project network.
“They’re asking taxpayers to pay twice for the construction of the system and then a monthly fee to access the network,” Cianelli said.
Over the last six years, members of the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association in Connecticut spent more than $2 billion and their networks are accessible by 96 percent of the state’s homes, Cianelli said.
“We’re using private capital that has been raised by the companies in this risky climate,” he said. “We’re not opposed to the government becoming involved in the places where there are no private providers.”
Cianelli’s group represents Comcast, Cox, Cablevision, Metrocast and Charter Communications, all of which are cable television companies that also provide customers with broadband Internet service.
Kristen Roberts, a Comcast spokeswoman in Connecticut, issued a separate statement when asked about the Gig Project.
“Today, in Connecticut we deliver a variety of speeds from 3 to 505 mbps to residential customers and multi-gigabit services ranging from 100 mbps to 10 gigabits to our business customers,” Roberts said.
Comcast will begin testing a new broadband service, DOCSIS 3.1, by the end of this year. Roberts described it as a “next generation technology that will be capable of delivering speeds of several gigabits per second.”
Comcast expects to begin testing DOCSIS 3.1 in the fourth quarter of this year and will start deploying it soon after that. But Roberts did not provide a more detailed timetable or a list of the first Connecticut communities selected for the rollout.
Lembo said the concerns of Henderson and the cable companies are to be expected.
“I understand that this is a time of potential change and that may make some uneasy, but I don’t see this as a bad thing for CWA,” Lembo said
Communities around the state are examining different business models for deploying ultra-high speed networks, but that once a statewide ultra-high speed Internet network is in place, it will be open access. That means that telecommunications companies like Frontier as well as cable companies like Comcast and Cox Communications will be able to use the network.
Jones said the open access network business model “creates competition.” That will allow all Internet service providers to compete on a level playing field.
New Haven and a group of other municipalities put out a request for qualifications for a private sector company to work with them on developing the fiber optic network necessary for ultra-high speed Internet. An Australian company, Macquarie Capital, was selected to do it.
“We’ve requested to enter into a feasibility study with Macquarie Capital,” Jones said. “Also included in the resolution is a request to enter into interconnection agreements with other cities and towns because we need other communities involved in a project.”
Right now, the resolution is before New Haven’s city services committee, but according to Jones, it could come up for a vote before the full Board of Alders later this month.
Jones said Frontier Communications was one of the companies that submitted a plan among the original requests for qualifications. The company has submitted another proposal, which would stop the dealings with Macquarie Capital if the alders elect to go with that, he said.
Information from: New Haven Register, https://www.nhregister.com
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