A federal judge wasn't ready last month to impose sanctions on the state's "middle mile" operator. But now he is — and the financial spanking could start Friday.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman ordered Axia NetMedia Corp., or any entity it does business with, to grant the state's quest to obtain electronic access to the 1,200-mile fiber-optic internet network built with $90 million in public money.

That access would come in the form of an ethernet cable plugged into a facility in Springfield.

The seemingly simple step has been the subject of briefs and hearings in both U.S. District Court and U.S. Bankruptcy Court for eight months. The state's lawyers have argued the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative needs to get inside the system it owns to ensure its continued operation.

The MassBroadband 123 network connects hundreds of community institutions, including public safety departments, to the internet.

The network's future was called into question last March, when KCST USA Inc., a company affiliated with Axia, filed for bankruptcy protection.

The state fought first to compel Axia to safeguard the network, securing a preliminary injunction last spring from Hillman. It then moved to obtain passwords, which Hillman ordered Axia to turn over.

Then in September, the state asked Hillman's court to force Axia to allow the short length of cable to be installed in an electronics facility so that MassTech could use the passwords it had obtained months before and actually get under the hood on the system.

That access was needed, the state said, to ensure it could jump in to save the system, should Axia and KCST discontinue operations. Axia claimed no such risk existed.

MassTech came within hours of seeing that cable inserted, only to be rebuffed at the last minute — raising temperatures and legal rhetoric.

After failing to secure its connection in September, Mass Tech's lawyers sought $100,000-a-day fines against the Canadian company. Hillman said no to fines in December, but made clear in his order Wednesday that he now wants action.

"Failure to comply will result in the imposition of sanctions," Hillman wrote.

Tim Connelly, Mass Tech's CEO and executive director, said Thursday he believes the network cable will be in place before the judge's 5 p.m. Friday deadline.

"This connection will provide MassTech with an additional safeguard that will ensure MassBroadband 123 continues to deliver its essential services to our customers across the region," he said, in response to questions from The Eagle.

Brian Voke, an attorney for Axia, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Axia's lawyers had argued their client could be blamed for damage done to the system.

Bankruptcy complication

Before Hillman could threaten financial sanctions, the state's lawyers needed to persuade the judge overseeing the Axia/KCST bankruptcy case to lift a "stay" that applied to changes in company operations. Hillman's Dec. 19 order noted that KCST's status in the bankruptcy court limited his options, at least until steps were taken in another courtroom on another floor in the same Worcester federal building.

That action by Judge Elizabeth D. Katz in U.S. Bankruptcy Court came Tuesday, spurring Hillman's order the next day, more than four months after he first instructed Axia to allow a MassTech employee to install the cable.

MassTech started to recruit a new network last spring. That search is on hold, though it has identified Holyoke Gas & Electric Co. as an emergency operator, should it need one in a hurry.

The legal beef predates the bankruptcy filing. Axia sued the state not long after the system went live several years ago, claiming the network was flawed and didn't include a promised number of customers. The state disputes that account.

As a creditor in the bankruptcy case, MassTech has requested damages of more than $30 million from Axia. It cites breaches in the contract the company signed with the state in February 2011.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.