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March 14, 2016 Other Voices

State has role in boosting affordable, high-speed Internet access

Elin Swanson Katz

Concerning your Feb. 29 editorial, “State must restrain government-program growth,” as the public advocate for energy, natural gas, water, and telecommunications and head of the state Broadband Office, I fully agree with your statement that “the state must think of creative ways to work with the private sector to advance the greater good” and your recognition that there have been successful private-public partnerships used to build infrastructure projects.

Indeed, the state's efforts in the broadband area involve creatively encouraging private-sector investment for the benefit of the many businesses and residential customers who lack affordable, high-speed Internet access.

This may be the No. 1 issue impacting economic development in Connecticut, and it is clearly integral to our efforts to attract and maintain innovative research-oriented and data-driven businesses. Stakeholders in other cities and states are awed by the energy and vision in Connecticut as they watch nearly 100 municipalities, with the number growing every day, collaborate with each other to create a more vibrant broadband market.

Nonetheless, it will take the efforts of state officials, legislators, business representatives, industry experts, local champions, and yes, our incumbent telecommunications providers, working together for a common goal of low-cost, high-speed Internet access for every citizen.

Having worked for the last five years to heighten awareness of the true status of demand for high-speed Internet access at reasonable prices, I must take exception with your criticism of the work of the Office of State Broadband and other government officials as an attempt to “launch new government programs.”

No one is suggesting or advocating that the state of Connecticut or municipalities should get into the business of running an Internet company. Rather, municipal officials, state agencies, and the private sector are working together to incent the telecom marketplace towards our goal. By introducing competition into the state's telecom market, all players will be incented to identify innovative models for financing and building fiber Internet infrastructure to deliver faster, cheaper, more reliable broadband services and introducing even more competition in the broadband industry. We are using the “power of the bully pulpit,” as you put it, to convene the best minds in the state and the country to strategize on a variety of options, and we strongly encourage all options that hinge primarily on private-sector investment.

We have engaged with in-state Internet providers such as Frontier and the cable operators, and believe that solutions for many parts of the state may well come from them, should they choose to work with us. However, those are not the only solutions and they are not the only possible providers, as there are many experienced telecommunications companies interested in competing to provide our citizens faster speeds and lower prices.

Connecticut is a very attractive market for Internet service providers because of the relative high income of its consumers, its density, its innovative regulatory structure for developing broadband infrastructure, and its current and developing industries centered on bioscience, health care, insurance, education and high-tech manufacturing, just to name a few of our assets. Let's leverage those assets to attract investment in state-of-the-art digital infrastructure necessary to support our economy.

The focus should be on consumers — be they businesses, residents, schools, hospitals, community anchor institutions, or other users of the Internet — and ensuring that they have access to Internet that is both affordable and of adequate speed to meet their needs. I hear complaints from every sector about a lack of adequate speeds for business, about poor service and high prices, about a paucity of choices for consumers. Affordable Internet access is not a luxury — in 21st-century Connecticut, it's an essential service like water and electricity.

If you needed a bridge across a river to access a thriving city on the other bank, you'd reasonably expect your town or your state to find a way to build it, without concern about government interfering in the free-market system. You would know that the government is simply one partner in the effort to bridge that river, with all players contributing to the construction of a permanent public good.

Fortunately, in today's world we don't have to ford a river to reach a thriving online ecosystem that can bring more jobs, technology and innovation into our state. We just have to make sure we have the bridge needed to reduce the digital divide in our state — in the form of ultra-high speed fiber networks — to create a booming digital economy.

This is a good news story for Connecticut — the entire telecommunications industry is watching what we're doing, including how we've come together in this quest for solutions. Let's trumpet our achievements thus far and keep going — not squelch the conversation. In this case, government is not “in the way,” it is helping to lead the way. n

Elin Swanson Katz is the Consumer Counsel for the Office of Consumer Counsel and State Broadband Office.

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