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June 18, 2018

Municipalities sue PURA over broadband decision

Photo | Contributed East Hartford Mayor Marcia Leclerc holds a fiber cable at town hall.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities has filed a lawsuit challenging a recent regulatory decision that has implications for high-speed internet service in the state.

CCM, as well as the individual communities of West Hartford, Manchester and New Haven, filed suit last week in state superior court, asking a judge to reverse a May decision by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority that was seen as a win for telecom companies.

Specifically, PURA ruled that municipalities cannot use their legally reserved space on utility poles, or assign that right to third parties, to build high-speed internet networks for use by residents and businesses.

The decision limited communities' use of pole space, called “municipal gain,” to local governmental activities like building networks for schools and public buildings.

Plaintiffs argue that PURA’s decision was contrary to the “plain language” in state law. They alleged that PURA exceeded its authority by weighing in on the purpose of communities’ use of the municipal gain space, rather than the location and relocation of that use.

The appeal also alleges that PURA’s decision relied incorrectly on federal telecommunications law, and that PURA doesn’t have jurisdiction over so-called “Title I” services, which is a status held by broadband services following the Federal Communications Commission’s recent repeal of net neutrality rules.

Cities and towns, the complaint says, have been “unequivocally harmed” by the decision, which will “have an overall adverse effect on the state’s broadband services and other services to members of the public.”

CCM is also arguing that the telecom companies and industry associations that petitioned PURA for the ruling in the first place lacked the legal standing to do so.

PURA did not respond to a request for comment on the suit.

[Update: June 20, 4 p.m.]

As promised earlier in the week, state Consumer Counsel Elin Katz on Wednesday also filed a suit challenging PURA's decision.

The challenge, which Katz expects will be consolidated with CCM's, alleges that PURA's decision "appears to substitute its own economic theory, that public entities like municipalities should not be involved in broadband development" for the state legislature’s 2013 statutory amendment that said municipalities could use the gain for any purpose.

"These municipal efforts are of course opposed by major internet service providers, who don’t want the competition," Katz said in a statement. "They would rather keep their monopolistic grip on the internet, and be able to charge exorbitant prices for what is often inadequate speed and poor service."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include details about OCC's legal challenge.

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