New Britain, Connecticut, to run 170 miles of fiber optic cable

(TNS) – New Britain will use millions of dollars in aid from the American Rescue Plan to roll out high-speed Internet to nearly all of its 70,000 residents.

The city has suffered from the “digital divide” that affects residents of rural, underdeveloped cities and poor inner cities most, and city leaders say families with students in public schools will benefit most from the new initiative.

New Britain and GoNetspeed are using $10 million, including $5.8 million in ARPA funding, to string together fiber-optic lines on utility poles along approximately 170 miles of local roads.

GoNetspeed will deploy line crews throughout the city next month and expects construction to continue through mid-year. When the project is completed, nearly all residents and small businesses will have access to affordable high-speed Internet.

Educators would welcome this improvement, as some New Britain students, like those in many of Connecticut’s larger and poorer cities, struggle to keep up with an increasingly digitally-based education.

The worst of the digital divide was seen in New Britain when the pandemic disrupted in-person classes 2 1/2 years ago.

In the beginning, many hundreds of students in the city could not connect to the Internet to participate in virtual classes or even to access assignments, reading and other materials online.

The school system and the city worked out an unusual deal with a local car dealership to temporarily fix the problem. Schaller Auto has installed hot spots in about a dozen cars and parked them every day in neighborhoods where Internet access is poor or unavailable at all.

At the time, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities said the pandemic had worsened a long-standing problem in poor cities.

“COVID has exacerbated this problem in two specific ways: A high percentage of Black and Brown students simply lack the ability to do distance learning, and too many adults living in urban areas lack the ability to get online to do the basics: search and apply for jobs, access unemployment benefits, etc,” executive director Joe DeLong wrote in 2020.

Even though in-person classes have long since resumed, inequity is still an issue for children because so much learning relies on a fast, reliable digital connection, Mayor Erin Stewart said.

“Our kids bring their Chromebooks home every day and still need access to them to do homework. Textbooks are mostly e-books now,” she said. “And it’s also important for extracurricular activities or weekend programs that might be hosted online by Parks and Recreation.”

The situation is particularly difficult for families with two or more children who need Internet access for homework every night, and even worse if one or both parents have to work from home.

“Even though some people have internet at home, they don’t have adequate internet to provide bandwidth for multiple children to be able to study online at the same time,” Stewart said.

Connecticut has worked for years to erase the digital divide, which leaves people in poor cities and sparsely populated cities without Internet access or hugely expensive plans offered by a single carrier.

“When companies are rolling out fiber-optic networks, what’s not fair is that they only go to neighborhoods where they’ve guaranteed people can pay for the service,” Stewart said. “And sometimes they charge $200 or over $250 a month.”

Qualifying low-income families will be able to apply for state assistance up to $30 per month for Internet access bills. GoNetspeed is promoting its service in Connecticut for as little as $60 a month.

GoNetspeed is billing the project as Connecticut’s largest public-private fiber-optic Internet partnership. Construction is expected to start on January 3.

“Whether we provide fiber access for the first time to a customer or offer a choice of internet service providers, New Britain residents and businesses win,” said Tom Perrone, Chief Operating Officer at GoNetspeed.

East Hartford this year began partnering with SiFi to provide high-speed fiber-optic service across the city, a project that Mayor Mike Walsh sees as a huge boon for economic development. Walsh said about 10% of the city has received coverage thus far.

©2022 Hartford Courant., Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.