About 10,000 homes and businesses in areas with substandard or no internet access would be eligible to receive “affordable” broadband service under a $43 million plan announced Tuesday by the White House, Gov. Ned Lamont and other officials.
Lamont said about another $100 million in the funding through the American Rescue Plan is expected to be approved by federal officials for more expansion by the end of the year.
Among the major components of the Connecticut Broadband Infrastructure Program is increasing access in “underserved” rural and urban areas, and providing $30 monthly subsidies to lower-income residents to help pay for high-speed service.
In a video conference hosted by the White House, Lamont compared the program to the 1930s-era Rural Electrification Act.
“You were disconnected from society unless you had electricity,” Lamont said. “And now it’s telecommunication, IT and high-speed broadband.”
Lamont noted that he had spent 25 years “building telecommunications systems” in his family-owned business, and that one of the biggest challenges, and expenses, was connecting what he called “that last mile.”
“Having the best broadband distribution in the world doesn’t make any difference unless you have that last mile connectivity,” he said. “A lot of that last mile, a lot of that lack of connectivity, is our more rural areas. No surprise there.”
He said his administration is working with the state’s telecommunication companies to identify which areas should be prioritized.
Other than rural communities, Lamont said emphasis will be placed on hooking up homes and businesses in urban centers “to make sure none of those kids in multi-unit housing are left behind.”
U.S Rep. Jahana Hayes said on the call that her district in the state’s northwest corner includes 275 miles of road with no cell service, and 18,000 homes with no internet at all, forcing many to rely on public Wi-Fi.
The former Waterbury teacher said the pandemic highlighted the problem as nearly all schools turned to at least partial remote-learning.
“I represent some of the highest-performing boarding schools in the world and some struggling schools,” she said. “And it has been my mission to close those gaps. “It took a pandemic to really show us that that work is needed.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal cited surveys that show nearly 400,000 of the state’s 3.6 million residents do not have access to affordable and reliable internet service, and that 23-percent have no access at all.
The situation, he said, particularly affects seniors and communities of color.
“There’s a perception about Connecticut that we’re urban and all connected,” Blumenthal said. “But this digital divide is really an insidious barrier to so many students and patients and businesses.”
He acknowledged that the funding announced Tuesday won’t solve the problem, but called it the “beginning of a major effort to close the divide” that will create “dramatic changes” in the everyday lives of those who benefit from the program.
The conference was hosted by Gene Sperling, a senior advisor to President Joe Biden and coordinator of the American Rescue Plan.
He said that Connecticut and the many other states that will receive the funding will be allowed wide discretion in how they spend it.
“This is designed to give governors like Governor Lamont the flexibility they need,” he said. “Not a one size all for each state but the flexibility that they can do what’s best in theirs.”
The program here will be administered by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Energy and Technology Policy.