The map shows the percent of locations within census blocks that have internet services of less than 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. / Office of Policy and Management

The U.S. Commerce Department has granted nearly $6 million to Connecticut for planning the statewide deployment and adoption of high-speed internet, kicking off an infrastructure project officials likened to the 19th century’s completion of the railroads and the 20th century’s electrification of homes.

Most of the funding will go toward the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Office of Telecommunications and Broadband to develop its plan for making broadband internet available throughout the state — extending connectivity to unserved and underserved areas, which include urban neighborhoods and rural regions like the state’s northwest corner.

Approximately $750,000 is slated for the Department of Administrative Services’ Commission for Educational Technology to develop its “digital equity plan,” intended to meet the digital needs of historically disenfranchised groups through the provision of internet-enabled devices and digital skills training, among other initiatives.

Funded through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the planning grants will open the door to a potential $100 million in federal funding over the next five years.

Assistant Secretary of Commerce Alan Davidson speaks at his desk with a bookshelf and flags in the background.
Alan Davidson, head of the National Technology and Information Administration, announced a planning grant for Connecticut at a virtual press conference. Screenshot via Erica E. Phillips / CT Mirror

Alan Davidson, who leads Commerce’s National Technology and Information Administration, said Tuesday the funding was intended for planning. “We’ve given the state some homework assignments from the federal government,” Davidson said at a virtual press conference. “Before we write a $100 million check, we want to see a plan for how you’re going to spend it.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal called the grant a “down payment,” noting that the full $100 million is slated to become available late next year. “The sooner we plan, the sooner we get the money,” he said, addressing state administrators at Tuesday’s virtual conference. “So, guys in Connecticut, let’s move and move quickly.”

Hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents — and thousands of small businesses across the state — lack affordable, high-speed internet. But work to deploy broadband access and close equity gaps is underway.

The NTIA funding comes on top of another federal program under the American Rescue Plan Act’s Capital Projects Fund. Connecticut was approved for $43 million in funding under that program earlier this year. That funding is intended to 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.

Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management has been working this year to map broadband access across the state. OPM published the details of that study last month, confirming that many urban areas and large portions of rural northwest Connecticut are lacking.

U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, said Tuesday there are roughly 275 miles of road in Connecticut with no cell connectivity. “I can tell you, when I travel in these areas, you can go dark for hours while you’re on the road,” she said. “I think we are on the road to improvement in these areas.”

Given the investment required for high-speed internet access to reach many of those locations, state officials said full deployment could take three to five years, particularly in rural areas.

“We’re not going to throw out a really good solution because we might have to wait an extra year to get it done,” Mark Boughton, head of the Department of Revenue Services, said Tuesday. “So it will be within our lifetime, that’s for sure, it’ll be sooner rather than later, but I think three to five years is a safe bet.”

Michelle Gilman, commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services, stands at a podium in front of a screen that reads, "Digital Equity in Connecticut."
State and local leaders gathered in October to discuss the state’s “digital equity plan.” Courtesy / CT Commission for Educational Technology

Several officials Tuesday said in order to meet the Infrastructure Act’s stated digital equity goals, programs must go beyond just connectivity.

“An affordable connection doesn’t help if [people] don’t have the devices or skills or know-how to thrive when they get online,” Davidson said.

Hayes said the state’s delegation in Congress would continue working to secure more funding to expand digital access.

“I think the pandemic has taught us that high speed internet is not a luxury, it is a necessity for so many families, for so many communities,” she said.

This is “our moment,” Blumenthal said, “comparable to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which provided electricity throughout the South, comparable to the completion of the railroads that linked East and West in our nation.”

Erica covers economic development for CT Mirror. Before moving to Connecticut to join the staff she worked in Los Angeles for public radio’s Marketplace and, before that, for the Wall Street Journal's L.A. bureau. She grew up in Minneapolis, MN, graduated from Haverford College and earned a master’s in journalism from the University of Southern California.