Internet Access and Affordability Becoming a Higher Priority

Connecticut by the Numbers

“If folks weren’t thinking about their internet connections a year ago, they certainly are now…given that most of us are working from home, kids are learning from home, people are doing their doctors appointments from home, and if you’re unemployed, you’re probably looking for a job online, so that requires an internet connection, explains Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel at Consumer Reports.

People in Connecticut and across the country are increasingly being told to function from home instead of in-person, but they “don’t have the one essential utility – broadband service” … defined as”fast, reliable internet service.”

Schwantes, appearing on the Connecticut-based podcast Win the Future, points out that “not enough Americans have access to the internet. Or even if they have access to the internet, they can’t afford the internet.” Recent data points out that is true in Connecticut, as elsewhere.

More than one-third of households without broadband at home reside in the state’s eight largest cities – in Hartford, Waterbury, New Britain, Bridgeport, and New Haven nearly 40% of households do not have broadband at home, according to a report compiled for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and Dalio Education and released in October 2020.

The report stated that “approximately 321,000 households in the state lack wireline broadband subscriptions. Of these disconnected Connecticut households, 57,000 have children under the age of 18.” The report recommended that “closing that gap entirely should be a goal” pursued by the state.

“It’s hard to do school work or have a telehealth session when you only have a smartphone with a small screen and a data-limited wireless service plan,” John Horrigan, the report’s author, said during a press conference releasing the report last fall. The report also indicated that 45% of Connecticut residents with a disability do not have broadband, 33% of households with incomes below the state’s median income do not have a computer, and people of color also face a significant disparity, according to the data.

That dilemma – the lack of internet accessibility or affordability among various segments of the population – is referred to in the industry as the digital divide. The impact of that divide is seen in employment and job preparedness, and in education.

This past week, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont indicated that as part of his efforts to ensure that Connecticut students continue to receive education – even in the midst of the ongoing pandemic – he intends to continue efforts to improve broadband access in his budget proposal to the legislature next month.

“With many students having to learn from home, COVID revealed that too many students are left on the wrong side of the digital divide that exacerbates the achievement gap,” Lamont said in his opening address to the State Legislature in early January. “Computers, internet access, and broadband – these are the tools essential to students’ success during COVID and for the foreseeable future.”

The CCM report underscores the current circumstances. “Even though the digital divide – the “haves” and the “have nots” with respect to internet connectivity — has been part of communications policy for 25 years, the closing of schools, businesses, and health care facilities in 2020 has revealed its true scope and consequence.”

Schwantes suggested that ultimately it may take Congressional action to assure universal access to the internet, comparing it to steps take a century ago to ultimately assure that electricity became accessible across the entire nation, and telephone service after that.

“The conversation is moving there. Everybody deserves a broadband connection,” Schwantes said. “The Biden-Harris Transition team (has been) talking about universal broadband.” He predicted that it will require both industry and government to make it a reality – that industry won’t do it alone given the significant costs involved.

While the likelihood of federal action remains unclear, state initiatives, such as the soon-to-be-formally-announced plan by Gov. Lamont, have the potential to begin to close the current gap.

“In the coming year, we will be expanding our commitment,” Lamont told state legislators, to extend “access to broadband.” It will be, he suggested, an element in “Connecticut’s comeback story.”

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