This story has been updated.
Connecticut is set to receive more than $144 million in federal funding to help expand the state’s broadband networks and to ensure, for the first time, that every home and business in the state has access to a reliable, high-speed internet connection.
The federal grant is part of a larger $42.45 billion nationwide program that was funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which Congress passed in November 2021.
President Joe Biden held a press briefing on Monday to announce the rollout of the new connectivity program, and he promised that the massive spending program would ensure every person in America has the ability to subscribe to reliable high-speed internet service by 2030.
This isn’t the first time the federal government has made significant investments in expanding internet service throughout the country, but federal and state officials argued this week that access to the internet has become even more vital following the coronavirus pandemic, which made a high-speed connection necessary for work, school and health care.
“High-speed internet isn’t a luxury anymore. It’s become an absolute necessity,” Biden said at a White House press conference.
Federal officials decided how much each state would receive from the new funding stream, which is formally known as the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, based on an analysis of how many residents currently lack access to the internet and what it will cost to increase the number of physical connections.
Connecticut is relatively well-off compared to other parts of the country when it comes to the number of residents with high-speed internet access. But federal data and state reports show there are still pockets in the state where households are either unserved or underserved, meaning the internet plans that are available are not considered adequate.
According to a press release from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an estimated 11,693 homes and small businesses in Connecticut lack access to a high-speed internet connection.
Connecticut’s 2022 Broadband Report found that most of those homes and businesses are concentrated in roughly nine towns in the Northwest Corner and in rural areas in the eastern half of the state.
According to the federal guidelines for the new program, a location is considered to be “underserved” if the existing connection is unable to provide download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 20 megabits per second.
A household is also considered “unserved” if it can’t gain access to download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 3 megabits per second.
Gov. Ned Lamont released a statement on Monday arguing the new wave of federal money will help bring everyone in the state up to the high-speed standard. But he also argued that it was just one step towards the state’s more ambitious goal of providing so-called gigabit internet service to every corner of the state.
“This funding will help us connect unserved and underserved residents and small businesses in our state, leveling the playing field as we work toward our goal of universal access to one gigabit per second download speeds and 100 megabits per second upload speeds that are becoming the standard of the industry,” Lamont said.
That may be the state’s goal. But for residents in parts of rural Connecticut, the priority is still making sure that every household has at least the basic level of high-speed internet access.
Jill Drew has been continuously working toward that goal in Sharon for more than four years.
Drew, who runs a documentary film company, is the leader of a group known as the Sharon Connect Task Force.
In that position, Drew has studied how many of her neighbors in the small town of roughly 3,000 people lacked a high speed internet connection, and she helped to develop of plan to reach those households.
That work, Drew said, could serve as a case study for other towns and cities that are trying to tie in some of the most remote parts of the state.
When Drew got involved in Sharon in 2019, she said, they found that roughly 250 homes in the town were either unserved or underserved by the local internet carriers.
“We basically drove every road in Sharon and walked down it, trying to see what lines were on the utility poles,” Drew said. “That was a lot of actual legwork.”
What they found was that most of the unserved and underserved homes were on roughly 28 miles of road that were so sparsely populated that it didn’t make financial sense for the existing private internet providers to install fiber optic or other lines to those locations.
“People who lived on these unfortunate roads were not going to get high speed internet,” she said.
As a result, the Sharon Connect Internet Task Force began assessing what it would take to build and operate a municipally owned internet network that could reach every house in town.
They ran a feasibility study to determine what that would cost and asked town residents about whether they would subscribe to the new municipal broadband service. That plan eventually ended, however, when the town learned it would cost roughly $12.5 million to build that network and another $250,000 a year to hire a contractor to maintain the system.
But Drew and the other volunteers in town didn’t stop there. At that point, they began discussions with Comcast and Frontier, the two existing internet providers in the area, to discuss what it might cost to expand the companies’ existing networks to reach the roughly 250 homes that lacked service.
Both companies submitted quotes to the town, and Sharon residents eventually voted in 2022 to spend $1.6 million to incentivize Comcast to branch out through the parts of town it was not already in.
It’s yet to be seen whether the federal money will be used in exactly the same way.
Officials with the state Department of Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which will help administer the federal funds, said the agency will solicit applications for infrastructure projects focused on linking unserved and underserved areas of the state. And they said the applicants are likely to be made up of “a wide variety of providers.”
Drew believe municipalities with existing gaps in their local internet networks should be prepared to apply for portions of that money, whether they plan to do what Sharon did or they intend to develop their own municipally-owned internet networks.
“Municipalities are going to have to figure out how they want to approach it,” Drew said. “Do they want to try to do a town-owned network? Do they want to partner with an incumbent provider?”
Drew is hoping that the ongoing internet buildout in Sharon will also be eligible for part of the $144 million in federal money, even though planning for that work preceded the grant announcement.
“We’re going to apply,” Drew said. “And I would be very upset, if, for some reason, we are told we don’t qualify.”