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TERRY COWGILL

It seems to happen at least once a decade. What was once a luxury becomes a necessity. And nowhere is that truism more evident than in the universal need for high-speed internet access.

The need has been made more obvious by a pandemic that has forced most of us to work from home and attend meetings via Zoom – a trend that could become the new normal as companies redefine their workplaces. Add to that the phenomenon of so-called telehealth – health care via telecommunications technologies – and you have an ever-burgeoning and critical need for reliable, affordable broadband.

Gov. Ned Lamont, who used to run a cable company, has wisely seized on the issue, announcing a few weeks ago that he would introduce a bill in the current legislative session to increase accessibility, especially to people in underserved communities. He proposes universal access by September 2022.

Though he did not cite the source, Lamont pointed to a 2018 survey indicating that 23% of Connecticut residents did not have internet access and that the deprivation worsened along racial lines: 21% of white households lacked access, as compared to 35% of Hispanic households and 34% of Black households.

It goes without saying that the digital divide widens the educational divide, not only in terms of doing homework, but during periods of remote learning such as those brought on by the pandemic. Connecticut already has one of the largest educational achievement gaps in the nation. In a word, lack of access to adequate technology makes a bad situation even worse.

“It’s critically clear in the 21st century the importance of having access to reliable internet,” Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management Melissa McCaw said during a recent briefing on the proposed state budget. “This is also about economic opportunity to the extent to which more remote work is done. There are sectors of our population that don’t have access to those types of jobs without closing the broadband divide.”

At a news conference, Lamont touted his Everybody Learns Initiative, in which tens of thousands of laptops were distributed to students and added, “I can get 140,000 Chromebooks out to people, but … it’s like a brick unless you have internet connectivity.” He’s right. One estimate indicated that more than 75% of students in New Britain lack internet access. What good would a cloud-based Chromebook be to them?

Among Lamont’s proposed remedies: changing the state’s policy to require that cable companies provide broadband to all residents where the companies have video licenses; streamlining the process for obtaining utility pole space for new lines; requiring internet service providers to report annual metrics on availability, download and upload speeds, and outage information; and prohibiting broadband providers from refusing service to customers because of race, religion, sexual orientation, or financial standing (including credit scores).

That said, the broadband problem in Connecticut extends beyond those of limited means. Large swaths of rural Connecticut lack adequate connectivity or, in some cases, have no broadband service at all. 

State Rep. Maria Horn, who lives in my town and represents me in Hartford, does not have broadband because Comcast, the sole provider in town, refuses to provide service to everyone in Salisbury. This is a problem in a region of the state that is graying rapidly and needs to attract young people in order to be more than a retirement community. Furthermore, in rural areas most people live far away from health care providers.

“Access to telemedicine is certain to become more critical in our region, and this will require bandwidth and reliable connections in every house,” Horn said.

I do have Comcast broadband and, at 300mb, the download speeds are more than adequate. But if my work requires me to upload 20 gigabytes of hi-resolution video to YouTube, it can take all night because of the asymmetrical speeds Comcast offers. I’m told I can pay Comcast several thousand dollars to bring fiber directly into my house (or closer to it) but I can’t justify that kind of investment.

So I’d say another important component of adequate universal access is greater competition. In western and central Massachusetts, for example, some underserved towns have started their own municipal fiber-optic utilities, which is justifiable when you consider that internet access is now almost as important as the water or sewer services towns often provide. Shockingly, some states ban this practice, presumably under great pressure from telecom companies that simply don’t want the competition. 

For their part, cable companies insist they have spent $2 billion over the last seven years on infrastructure investments in Connecticut. But Horn is not convinced that a collection of private providers will get the job done and argues for something bigger.

“Our current divide can be closed with a universal network, one connecting everyone,” Horn said.

For more wisdom on this subject, I turned to Lon Seidman, a noted technology geek and one of the smartest people I know. Seidman, a CTNewsJunkie contributor, is the author of an analysis we published last year, “Why Your Internet Sucks Right Now,” and produces outstanding technology videos on his YouTube channel from his basement in Essex. The full text of Seidman’s response can be found here.

“I think the proposal rightly focuses on reducing some of the impediments to building out the necessary infrastructure,” Seidman said of Lamont’s initiative. “The larger problem, as you correctly point out, is the lack of competition driving better service.”

The root of that lack of competition lies in the dearth of population density in much of the state. The absence of critical mass in rural and even suburban Connecticut demands a steep investment for would-be investors without the promise of great profits down the road.

Seidman also thinks we’d be in better shape if state lawmakers had not repealed the franchise removal process that required cable operators to renew their franchise agreements with the state in order to continue operating. To that end, both of us would like to see a revitalization of the role local cable advisory councils play in holding the companies accountable.

“Having been involved with that renewal process as a member of my local cable advisory council I can tell you that Comcast was very receptive to the needs of the community especially when their license was up for renewal,” Seidman said.

As for my problems with glacial upload speeds, Seidman, a member of the Essex Board of Education, said he has seen firsthand during the pandemic how students and their parents struggle when everyone in the house is involved in an online class or meeting. And it’s unlikely the problem will solve itself when full in-person learning returns because so many adults will continue to work from home. On a technical level, only fiber into the home will dramatically boost upstream speeds.

Finally, Seidman sees hope on the horizon for underserved communities – and it might not even involve the cable companies. SpaceX, the American aerospace manufacturer founded by Elon Musk, is developing Starlink, a low-latency satellite broadband provider. Starlink will likely be available in Connecticut by the middle of 2022.

“My brother recently installed it in northern Vermont and is getting 120 megabits downstream and 15-20 up,” Seidman added.

If Starlink, and its inevitable imitators, really takes off and offers reliable broadband, it would benefit cord-cutters everywhere and throw a terrible scare into the cable companies that most of us depend on exclusively for broadband. It would also make it far easier for underserved communities to connect.

It would be yet another example of what Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.” Hey, I’m not hoping for the cable companies to be destroyed but I wouldn’t mind seeing them sweat profusely.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.