Congressmen tout federal funds to extend high-speed Internet

At a time when trashing the stimulus package is a popular Republican  campaign strategy, Connecticut Democrats were happy Monday to show off stimulus dollars at work through a federal technology and infrastructure grant.

With a self-congratulatory tone, the delegation touted federal funding they say could create up to 1,200 jobs while providing high-speed Internet to underserved areas.

“We pride ourselves on being a small delegation but still being able to deliver for the people of Connecticut,” said 1st District Rep. John Larson.

“This grant today represents one fourth of all funds being announced nationally today,” said Rep. Chris Murphy, whose 5th District includes rural Northwest Connecticut, a major beneficiary. “It’s a huge win for the state and our future economic growth.”

Larson and Murphy are in different electoral circumstances: Larson has a virtual lock on re-election, while Murphy, while favored, faces a tough challenge. But both of them, along with Reps. Rosa DeLauro of the 3rd District and Joe Courtney of the 2nd, were pleased to turn out seven weeks before Election Day to praise a program that will put high-speed Internet in voters’ homes.

The $93 million statewide grant makes up part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act meant to create jobs and promote economic growth in a struggling U.S. economy.

The project, to be completed within three years, is to install underground fiber-optic cable necessary to provide high-speed Internet in areas without access, including the more rural northeastern and northwestern corners of Connecticut.

Immediate beneficiaries of the grant will include various libraries, K-12 schools and community colleges, but the network will also be open to private access, said Lawrence E. Strickling, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information. Because the project is government funded, “the infrastructure must be open to serve homes and businesses as well,” he said. Companies such as Internet provider Comcast can come in once the fiber-optic cable is laid, and “tap into the grid,” he said, offering high speed internet in areas with slow connections.

Murphy said that expanding the grid was crucial to his district, where “a lot of homes… still only have access to dial-up Internet,” he said. “It can be a job killer for telecommuters.”

The grant money will also be used to create an integrated public safety data network, connecting the state’s safety agencies via Broadband Internet. “Connecticut’s public safety professionals are often spread out across rough terrain and roadways,” said Murphy. “This grant will give them the ability to link in to a statewide system that makes us all safer,” he said.

The funding for the Recovery Act is just a “one-time thing,” said Strickling when asked about extending the grant beyond the three-year project. “We are trying to make the money stretch as far as we can now,” he said, “and maybe there will be more funding once the economy rebounds.”

Though the delegation called securing the grant a truly bipartisan effort and thanked Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell for her support, her office did not have a representative present. “They were invited,” said Larson, expressing surprise.  In 1999 Rell initiated the Connecticut Education Network (CEN), which links schools and libraries across the state via broadband Internet. The grant will go to expanding this effort.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, also was absent but took part in an afternoon press conference in Stamford announcing the same grant.