Gov. Ned Lamont Tuesday announced a proposed bill that aims to connect all citizens to high-speed Internet service by September 2022. A 2018 survey found that 23 percent of residents did not have Internet access at home.
If passed into law, the bill will allow the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to require Internet service providers to provide access to all residents where they have video licenses — a measure that is currently prohibited.
Citing the importance of high-speed Internet for education and telehealth, Lamont called broadband access “an essential service you need to survive in the 21st-century.”
Referring to his Everybody Learns initiative, Lamont said, “I can get 140,000 Chromebooks out to people, but … it’s like a brick unless you have Internet connectivity.”
A 2018 survey found that 23% of Connecticut residents did not have Internet access at home, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said during a Tuesday morning news conference. It showed that “21% of those without Internet access are white households, 35% are Hispanic households and 34% are African American households,” she said.
“We can close that divide by making sure all families can afford and access broadband Internet in their homes, particularly those in undeserved communities, improving service and establishing stronger consumer protections,” she said. “These steps will help us ensure no one is left at a disadvantage.”
To reduce the costs of building broadband Internet access, state officials said the bill would streamline the permit process that allows providers to install broadband on utility poles. Telecom companies will be required to report annual metrics on availability, download and upload speeds and outage information.
The proposal also aims to make sure government agencies have enough staff and resources to partner with providers and municipalities, so they can map out exactly where access is needed.
To increase consumer protections, the bill will give PURA the ability to oversee user complaints so they can better manage penalties for provider noncompliance. Additionally, it would prevent providers from refusing service to customers due to race, religion, sexual orientation or financial standing, including credit score.
When asked about whether he expects service providers to cooperate with the state’s plan, Lamont said telecom companies “want to have more customers, and we want them to have more customers. We all want more wide availability for this so, we’re not necessarily on different sides of the aisle.”
In addition to state regulations that would incentivize companies to “build out” access, Lamont said he expects the federal government to come forward with an infrastructure bill that includes competitive grants to “get more people wired up faster so, I think we’ll be rolling in the same direction.”
“When President Biden comes forward with their infrastructure bill, high-speed, broadband access is one of the things they’re going to make available,” he said. “It’s a grant, and you’ve got to compete for it. We’ll be the first ones able to say, ‘We’re ready to go.’ ”
Lamont added: “Frankly, I’ve got to take a look at PURA. We’ve got 100 people doing water and electricity, [and] I’ve got a handful doing broadband. Broadband is a big piece of our future. We’ve got to look at that balance.”
While the governor said he’d like to get started on the project as soon as possible, he said “it’s really up to the legislative leadership, where that is on the list of the priorities.”
Rep. Robert Sanchez, a New Britain Democrat and House chair of the legislature’s education committee, called the bill proposal “great news” and “something we desperately need.”
“I’m very eager to get this on the House floor and move it along,” he said. “We’ve been having these discussions but absolutely moreso today because [Internet access] is so critical due to the pandemic.”
At the start of the pandemic, Sanchez said more than 75% of New Britain students did not have Internet service.
“We’re doing better now of course, but we have to do a lot more,” he said. “We have so many kids throughout the state of Connecticut that still cannot connect.”
Rep. Maria Horn, a Salisbury Democrat whose district covers nine towns in the state’s northwest corner in Litchfield County, called Internet access “the roads of the 21st-century.”
“It affects us in every possible way. …. It’s critical during the pandemic but to be clear, this is of long-term importance to us,” she said, noting that telehealth is the “only way” to deliver special medical services to people in Connecticut’s rural areas.
“Same goes for education, same goes for economic development,” she said. “We have had the great privilege of having an influx of new families moving into our area and enrolling their children in our schools. … They need high-speed Internet access in order to stay here.”
©2021 The Hartford Courant, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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