Broadband fiber

The telecommunications industry lost and consumers won in a Connecticut Superior Court decision that gives cities and towns the right to use existing utility infrastructure within their borders to create municipal networks that deliver cheap, fast internet service to homes and business.

Perhaps the greatest benefit to consumers in the decision in a suit by towns against the telecommunications industry and state utility regulators is its potential to develop a means of delivering fast, efficient internet services to underserved towns in the state’s rural northern corners and in parts of large cities like Hartford.

In the decision Tuesday, Judge Richard Shortall concluded that, under state law, cities and towns have the right to create internet networks by stringing their own cables on the poles and through the underground conduit that distribute cable television, telephone and electric service within their borders. The towns were opposed in the case by Frontier, United Illuminating, the wireless and cable television industries and the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

Among other things, the industry groups argued that allowing municipalities a cost-free place on utility poles — a pole location known as the municipal “free gain” — would create unfair and illegal competition for the industry.

Consumer advocates were cheered, among them the state Office of Consumer Counsel, which argued that the lack of internet access of any sort in some parts of the state’s lightly populated areas depresses everything from real estate values to educational achievement to health care access. The office has been looking for years for a way to expand access, among them use of the municipal gain.

“We are pleased because the Court ruling opens the door to municipal broadband offerings using the municipal space on poles and in conduits,” said acting Consumer Counsel Richard Sobolewski. “Many members of the public desperately need access to internet services at higher speeds and affordable prices in order to meet their daily needs for health care information, education, public safety warnings, and all the other aspects of modern society that run through the internet.”

Town officers were enthusiastic about the decision, which they said affirmed a view they have held of state law since municipal gain became a topic of contention as the result of a 2013 revision of state statutes. But they also are hesitant about hiring contractors to string new lines in the face of what likely will be years of appeals by the telecommunications industry.

Shortall noted that the decision is “clearly headed toward higher judicial ground.”

“Now we have to decide how to move forward,” said Jessica Fowler, a former Sharon selectman and currently a member of Northwest Connect, a group created to expand and improve internet access in the state’s northwest corner.

Fowler said she has dial-up internet service and others in Sharon have no access to service of any kind — including cable television. She said some areas, such as the town of Norfolk and the village of Falls Village have been contemplating establishing their own municipal electric utilities as a means of gaining access to utility poles.

“It not unusual out here to have a 20 or 30 minute drive to see a doctor,” Fowler said. “Access to online health care can be important.”

Manchester, where access to service is less an issue than speed, has been fighting for access to utility poles for years. Assistant Town Attorney John F. Sullivan said the goal there is to eventually use a high-speed municipal network as an economic development tool by connecting residents, business and town services.

Questions have been debated before state utility regulators for years about whether towns have free access to utility poles and, if so, whether they can transfer their access to private, third-party service providers. In May, state utility regulators issued a ruling for the industry and against the towns.

New Haven, Manchester, West Hartford and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities appealed to Superior Court.

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

Most of the industry groups did not respond to questions about the decision.

A Frontier spokesman said the original decision by utility regulators was “the correct one based on state and federal law, as well as the principles of fair competition.”

“We are reviewing the decision and next steps,” the spokesman added.