Thousands of people in CT do not have access to high-speed, affordable internet. Here’s how the state is trying to change that. – Hartford Courant

Hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents and thousands of small businesses across the state lack affordable high-speed Internet. But two new federal grants are trying to boost the process of closing the state’s broadband capital gap.

The $5 million in grant money awarded to the state is part of President Biden’s Internet for All initiative. The money includes a $4.2 million Broadband Capital, Access and Deployment, or BEAD, grant to be administered by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and a $736,568 Digital Capital grant to be administered by the Educational Technology Commission. .

The grants are the first of $100 million expected to be delivered to Connecticut over the next five years and administered by DEEP’s Office of Telecommunications and Broadband. Over the past year, the office has worked to identify barriers to broadband access — location, lack of capital and income levels — and released a report showing progress made and how the state can expand to address the digital divide. these efforts using federal funding.

The state’s rural northwest corner contains nine of the 10 cities with the highest percentage of unserved areas, according to DEEP’s broadband report. Expanding service to remote areas with few customers can be costly for ISPs, but using an increase in new federal funds to fill the gaps depends heavily on knowing where they are, the report notes.

In addition, poverty is also the strongest correlate of low internet subscription rates in Connecticut and the nation. Hartford has both one of the highest percentages of residents living below the poverty line in the state and the lowest subscription rate in the state, according to the report. A 2018 survey found that 23% of Connecticut residents did not have internet access at home, with 34% identifying as black or African-American residents, and 35% identifying as Hispanic residents.

“Highest poverty areas such as the West Side of the Blue Hills, Frog Hollow, Sheldon Charter Oak, Clay Arsenal and Upper Albany also show the lowest levels of internet subscriptions, as do low poverty areas such as the West End. , Behind the Rocks and South West broadband subscription rates are closer to the rest of the state,” the DEEP report said.

Over the next year, the Connecticut Educational Technology Commission will lead efforts to develop a plan that identifies and addresses the barriers that residents across the state face in getting online and using digital tools and resources. The goal is to expand access to technology so that all state residents can benefit from education, career advancement, telehealth, access to public services, and overall well-being.

According to the report, “high-speed Internet that meets the FCC’s ‘served’ standard of 100 Mbps upload and 20 Mbps upload is widely available,” but “the number of unserved and unserved locations in the state” is just under 8,000 is evaluated as (or 0.57% of all locations in Connecticut).

“Broadband is essential to living in today’s digital world,” DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes said in a statement. “These programs will provide lasting solutions for the communities they serve, enabling everyone who lives, studies and works in the state to enjoy the economic and social benefits of affordable, high-speed Internet. DEEP is committed to a high level of community involvement throughout the life of these programs.”

CCET’s $736,568 grant will be used to fund the creation of a Connecticut digital capital plan and the hiring of a digital capital program manager to oversee and implement the state’s digital capital plan. In addition, the grant will establish a core digital capital planning team of eight to 10 members, including the head of the state’s BEAD program, to help implement the needs and assessment plan and include input from residents and leaders across the state.

“The grant emphasizes the needs of traditionally disenfranchised groups, including residents at or below 150% of the poverty line, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, those incarcerated in public institutions, persons with disabilities or language barriers, and those living in rural areas. areas and veterans,” said CCET Executive Director Doug Casey.

A larger $5 million grant will be used to create a five-year action plan that identifies Connecticut’s broadband access, affordability, capital and adoption needs, including better identification of unserved and underserved areas through planning and capacity building of the state broadband office. . local engagement with underserved, underserved, and underrepresented communities to better understand barriers to adoption.

Upload and download speeds have increased significantly across the state as technology improves and providers continue to develop and improve services, the DEEP report said. Progress has been particularly significant over the past year as fiber services have grown rapidly in Connecticut. In 2021, 173,368 locations in the state had access to fiber internet that met the state target of 1 Gbps download and 100 Mbps download speeds, which are considered high-speed. This year, that number is up more than 200% to 522,840, according to DEEP.

The deployment of new fiber services by Frontier and GoNetspeed in the past few years has also resulted in increased competition in high-density areas. The number of areas with three or four carriers has increased by more than 30% since 2016. More than half of all locations in Connecticut now have at least two carriers offering speeds above the state line, giving internet consumers more representation.

The report notes that “initial construction was concentrated along the I-95, I-91 corridor, but has begun to spread to less populated areas.”

The new grants also follow the state’s $43.5 million Everyone Learns initiative, which seeks to close Connecticut’s digital divide and enable students across the state to learn from home. Funding from the state portion of the federal CARES Act, the Governor’s Emergency Education Assistance Fund and the Elementary and Middle School Emergency Assistance Fund will be used to purchase 50,000 laptops for students to use at home for 12 months. Web for 60,000 students, create free community hotspots for the public at 200 community sites across the state, and offer social emotional learning content to school districts across the state.

The DEEP report noted that “many families did not take advantage of the free broadband that was offered,” suggesting a need for better outreach.

In addition, Governor Lamont signed a broadband bill last year that would require Internet service providers to meet new state standards to expand broadband wherever they roll out cable programming, aimed at reducing costs and protecting consumers. The bill also directs the Office of Policy and Management to publish a broadband map on its website by December 1 each year.

“These awards will directly support the important work going on in Connecticut to keep everyone in our state connected and moving forward,” Lamont said. “Access to fast, reliable internet has become a requirement of modern life, and we are working hard to expand access so that no one is left behind as we transition to an increasingly digital future.”

States are also racing against a deadline to challenge the map federal officials will use to allocate the nation’s largest investment in high-speed internet.

At stake is part of the $42.5 billion Broadband Capital, Access and Deployment program, part of the infrastructure measure signed into law by President Joe Biden last year.

States have until Jan. 13 to object to the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband speed map released last month, which for the first time lists specific street addresses as having no Internet access or availability.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Stephen Underwood can be contacted

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