Bing Crosby and Rhonda Fleming in 1949's ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.’ Courtesy of Paramount Pictures Corporation.

At Least One State has a (Fiber) Backbone

Who’s on track to get citizens high-speed Internet? Hint: it’s the only state with the word “connect” in its name.

Maybe you remember Sir Boss, aka Hank Morgan, the leading character in one of Samuel Clemens’s, aka Mark Twain’s, most famous books. He begins his story this way: “I am an an American. I was born and reared in Hartford, Connecticut. So I am a Yankee of the Yankees — and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment.”

The book, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, is (among many other things) a close look at the sweeping technological change Clemens/Twain saw happening around him in late-19th century Hartford. The country was industrializing, and Hank was an industrial innovator. He had learned to make “guns, revolvers, cannons, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery,” and “if there wasn’t any quick new-fangled way to make a thing, I could invent one — and do it as easy as rolling off a log,” Hank says.

Twain was clearly tickled by the deep practicality of Connecticut natives. And that practical ingenuity is still on display in Connecticut, which is poised to become the first “Gigabit State” in the country.

Talk about your labor-saving, productivity-enhancing inventions — dozens of Connecticut towns are now on a path towards installing wholesale fiber networks connecting all homes and businesses. And those flinty Yankees won’t be paying for the installation of these open access networks themselves, because fiber, with its predictable up-front cost and steady returns, is an excellent longterm investment for private companies. Meanwhile, any ISP will be able to use these networks to sell service directly to homes and businesses.

Result: world-class connectivity at low prices for Connecticut residents in towns across the state — including in rural areas where getting online is a struggle. As Elin Katz, the Consumer Counsel of the State of Connecticut, puts it, “It’s like building the road — and anyone can drive their cars on it.”

Let’s roll the story back, just as Twain might have done. By mid-2014, Connecticut had some powerful regulatory assets on its side to smooth the way for private sources of fiber investment. For starters, Connecticut is the one state in the country that has fixed the unbelievably difficult issue of attaching wires to poles. Rather than letting pole owners hold up every requestor by creating delays and making demands for special payments (seriously: pole-attachment scuffles are the long-running soap operas of telecom), Connecticut requires pole owners to obey a Single Pole Administrator, adhere to uniform pricing agreements, and act to make way for new wires in a set time. Dramatic stuff. And Connecticut already had passed a statute giving municipalities the right to use a part of a pole, or “gain,” for any purpose. These two elements made Connecticut an extremely attractive place to string a network.

So after a win at the poles, Connecticut steamed ahead. First the Connecticut Technology Council — the statewide chamber of commerce for high tech — held a listening tour over the summer of 2014 in Hartford, New Haven, and Stamford. Demand for fiber was clearly high: businesses were clamoring for it. Then, in September 2014, the state issued a Request for Quotation aimed at eliciting interest from private investors in creating leading gigabit fiber networks in commercial corridors and residential areas to “foster innovation, drive job creation, and stimulate economic growth.”

Here’s the key: The whole state would get a chance to be on board. If it worked, at least one of the fifty states in our union would have gigabit fiber — a clear, positive way to claim a state is “open for business.” All 169 towns in Connecticut were invited to join the RFQ by appending their own, individual descriptions of what their town could provide a private investor — expedited permitting, say, or a place to stage equipment. (Having many towns join in would be a win-win: as a group the towns would have more bargaining heft than any town acting alone, while a private provider would be able to lower its per-unit costs by operating at scale.)

Interest on the part of Connecticut towns in participating was so strong that the deadline for jumping on board was extended. In the end, forty-six municipalities representing more than half the population of the state were part of the RFQ when it went out. And private parties jumped in turn to respond — because Connecticut had those valuable regulatory assets on its side. Poles!

Right now the towns are considering the RFQ responses that were received by the state in January. Any entity that has the cash to string the wires in the first place — say, an investment bank — will be reaping steady, reliable returns for the next thirty years. It’s a great investment. And the plan puts Connecticut, that practical home of Yankee ingenuity and can-do labor-saving devices, on the global fiber map.

The incumbent cable and telcos are not standing idly by. The New England Cable Television Association, NECTA (essentially speaking for Comcast) has fired at the plan, variously claiming that (a) the state already has adequate capacity, so no one needs a gig, (b) if gig networks are needed, they’ve already been built, (c) if new networks are built via the Connecticut plan (a plan supported by the four largest cities in the state as well as 42 other towns), taxpayers will have to pay for them. None of this is true. As one online commenter on a NECTA op-ed puts it, “This guy is saying that the cable companies are your friend. Friends like them we don’t need.”

The Connecticut Yankee does some time-traveling in Twain’s book, as you may remember. He’s taken in hand by a local and describes the scene to us:

“We saw a far-away town sleeping in a valley by a winding river; and beyond it on a hill, a vast gray fortress, with towers and turrets, the first I had ever seen out of a picture.

‘Bridgeport?’ said I, pointing.

‘Camelot,’ said he.”

This time around, the roles can be reversed: our fiber Camelot might just be Bridgeport.

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