Thom Bal via Shutterstock
Broadband being laid (Thom Bal via Shutterstock)

NEW BRITAIN, CT — Superior Court Judge Joseph Shortall just made it easier for cities and towns to begin contemplating what municipal Internet service might look like for their residents and businesses.

In a decision issued last week, Shortall found that the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority “overstepped its bounds as an administrative agency” in deciding the municipalities were restricted from using what’s called “free gain” or utility pole space to provide internet service to its residents.

The Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) sided with internet service providers in May when it ruled that communities could not use utility pole space for municipal fiber deployment. It concluded that giving municipalities “preferential access” could run afoul of the federal Communications Act, which requires that cable television and telecom providers receive “nondiscriminatory access” to utility poles, and bars local authorities from inhibiting any entity from providing telecom service.

Shortall disagreed.

He said the 2013 Connecticut law that allows municipalities to use their space on those utility poles “for any purpose” was clear in its meaning. However, “the authority in its decision paid no attention to the words of the statute, and made no attempt to discern their meaning,” Shortall wrote.

That 2013 language was written by former state Sen. Beth Bye of West Hartford who had advocated for local broadband and 5G.

Legislation introduced earlier this year that would have allowed municipalities to establish broadband service failed.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities signed onto the lawsuit with the towns of New Haven, Manchester and West Hartford.

“The decision is a win for municipalities and their property taxpayers, and represents a clear, fair and reasonable reading of state statutes,” CCM Executive Director Joe DeLong said.

If it stands, the ruling paves the way for municipalities to begin offering their own internet service — at prices that might be below what’s currently being offered by some telecommunication companies. In many communities, there is no competition or there are only one or two providers.

Michael Piscitelli, deputy economic development administrator in New Haven, said the landscape is rapidly evolving, “driven in part by 5G roll-out plans, but also by the need to deliver high-quality internet service to residents at low and moderate income levels.  The ruling does not solve these challenges, but it does preserve an opportunity for municipalities to look out for the interests of the entire community.”

He said service providers and officials from New Haven recently participated in a meeting with the governor’s 5G task force on service delivery. The ruling is a “another meaningful and timely step forward.”

Joe Rosenthal, an attorney with the Office of Consumer Counsel, which also intervened in the case said there are many towns exploring broadband service, “but it’s not without risk.”

Rosenthal said they are pleased with the decision, but there’s a chance that the state or one of the providers could appeal the decision.

A spokeswoman for the Connecticut attorney general’s office said no decision has been made yet about an appeal.