The White House has approved Connecticut’s plan to spend nearly $43 million in federal funding on the creation of more affordable high-speed broadband internet, particularly for low-income households and businesses that lack access.
The approval was announced Tuesday by the White House during a call with Gov. Ned Lamont and other state officials. Connecticut was one of five states that received approval for broadband project grants.
Connecticut is using part of the federal funding allocated through Democrats’ pandemic relief package — the American Rescue Plan Act — to support broadband infrastructure plans that will help close the digital divide, an issue that was magnified during the pandemic when schools and many businesses went remote.
ARPA’s Capital Projects Fund will provide the money to create the Connecticut Broadband Infrastructure Program, a grant program that will launch early next year and expand broadband access to at least 10,000 households and businesses across the state, in addition to some subsidies to help pay for the service. It will provide at least 100 megabits per second of both upload and download speeds.
That effort will get Connecticut closer to its goals for improving broadband speeds.
“Until we tackle our underserved broadband challenges in our urban, suburban, and rural areas, we will not have equitable access for all and achieve the economic recovery that we need,” Lamont said.
Connecticut was given a total of nearly $142 million as part of the Capital Projects Fund.
During the call Tuesday, Lamont said the grant is the initial allocation from that overall amount: $40.8 million will be used for project deployment and another $2.1 million for administrative costs.
He’s hoping to get the rest of the money approved by the U.S. Treasury Department by the end of the year. Governors are given some flexibility on how to spend these funds, which could also be used for multi-purpose community facility projects and purchases of devices like desktop computers, laptops and public wifi equipment.
Lamont said people who live in rural communities and those who live in multi-unit homes in urban areas have the most difficulty accessing reliable and affordable broadband. State officials are working with major telecommunications companies to identify which areas to prioritize in Connecticut, he said.
Any internet providers funded by the state program must also participate in the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which gives low-income households $30 off their monthly internet bill.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who was also on the call, cited a finding from a 2021 BroadbandNow report that estimates more than 380,000 people in Connecticut lack access to affordable and high-speed internet. He noted that seniors and people of color are disproportionately affected.
While the pandemic exposed the inequities surrounding broadband access, especially for children, Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, said that teachers and others working in schools have been aware of the issue for years.
“There are so many lessons [from the pandemic] as they apply to equity and education and the gaps that persist, gaps that so many of us that have been a part of that profession already knew about,” Hayes, a former teacher in Waterbury, said on the call.
Gene Sperling, a senior adviser to President Joe Biden and the coordinator of the American Rescue Plan, noted that federal investments in broadband will continue, particularly as the bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year is implemented. That law invests another $65 billion to expand broadband access across the U.S.
“The pandemic was a national teaching moment that quality, affordable high-speed broadband is a necessity,” Sperling said. “It’s an economic and educational necessity and not a luxury in the United States today.”
But while the state is using certain federal funds to alleviate disparities in broadband accessibility, most municipalities in Connecticut didn’t designate their ARPA funds for this purpose.
Connecticut cities and towns received a combined $1.5 billion in funding through the pandemic relief law. But as of April, only eight used it on broadband projects, spending a total of roughly $5 million. Those municipalities are Canton, Middlebury, Milford, New London, Roxbury, South Windsor, Waterford and West Hartford.
Andrew Brown contributed to this report.
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.