HARTFORD, CT — Students in the North End of Hartford don’t have many options when it comes to accessing the Internet to complete their homework assignments.
A new report from the Connecticut Office of State Broadband and Office of Consumer Counsel says that many struggle with finding Internet access after school hours.
Many have to wait for one of a dozen computers at the local library, while others have gone in search of wifi access at local restaurants. One parent told officials putting together the report that her children would sit on the front porch regardless of weather to get a wifi signal from a nearby school. Still others complained the schools were shutting down the wifi access at night.
All of these options are unsatisfactory “workarounds” that do not address the crux of the problem, Janice Flemming-Butler, of Strategic Outreach Services, who put together the report with the help of Voices of Women of Color, said.
The situation, dubbed the “Homework Gap,” negatively impacts the educational opportunities of North End students, the report concluded.
Unlike their suburban counterparts who typically access high-speed internet via home connections, interviews with students, parents, and community leaders in the North End revealed that many students there must wander and struggle in search of such access.
Josh Rosario, a graduate of Bulkeley High School and a student at Central Connecticut State University, said Internet access was “a pipe dream.” He said he didn’t come from a wealthy family so he would have to spend time after school in the library vying for one of the few computers available.
“Every child no matter their financial status deserves to have the resources to succeed in today’s world,” Rosario said.
Denise Best, chair of the Upper Albany Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, said every school day there are 100 to 200 children at the Hartford Public Library’s Albany Avenue branch trying to access one of six computers.
“Every day there are children having to leave that library at closing time without having the opportunity to do their homework,” Best said. “We’re not talking about playing games or social media, we’re talking about doing homework.”
She said when broadband providers are generating billions in profits every year she thinks they can afford to be a “good corporate partner and provide free Internet access to our children.”
State Comptroller Kevin Lembo, who has been a proponent of making Connecticut the first Gigabit state in the nation, said the thought of a child having to spend time at a fast food restaurant everyday to do their homework is “outrageous.”
Lembo said by having the gap “we are creating a permanent underclass and exasperating the education gap” and their economic opportunities for decades. He said increasing access to broadband in the North End of Hartford is an achievable goal with the right partnerships.
“When you see state, city, and community coming together for this purpose that’s how we will forge a path forward,” Lembo said.
The press conference Thursday was held in the North End at 1229 Albany Avenue.
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said having run his mayoral campaign out of 1229 Albany Avenue “I can attest that Internet service is not great.”
He said it impacts small business owners too, but as important as that business development is there’s another issue here too and “that is basic equity for our kids.”
Access to high-speed Internet is “not a luxury, is not a nice to have,” Bronin said. “If you are going to school by the time you are 10 or 11 you are being asked to do homework assignments that require access to the Internet and too many kids in Hartford, in particular, North Hartford don’t have that access.”
He said they are engaging with providers like Comcast and Frontier to get the infrastructure in place as the city develops the streetscape.
He said they are going after a federal grant from the U.S. Commerce Department to help support their effort, but reframing the the issue around the “Homework Gap” is important to getting more people to understand the problem.
In the short-term the report suggests that the community engage businesses and schools that have high-speed Internet access to allow students to use it.
Over a longer period of time, they group wants the broadband industry and broadband developers to aspire to support the entire state, and not be satisfied with the persistence of “broadband deserts” in Connecticut’s cities and rural areas.
Consumer Counsel Elin Katz said it would cost $3 billion to cover the entire state with fiber.
Flemming-Butler said they would be politely putting pressure on broadband providers to step up their investments in the North End.
She said these conversations can’t continue to happen in silos and that’s why it’s so important to highlight the “Homework Gap.” She’s hoping that pressure both from small businesses and the community will help the conversation continue.