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New Britain, Conn., to Run 170 Miles of Fiber-Optic Cable

In a push to expand broadband access to nearly all corners of the city, officials are using millions of dollars in American Rescue Plan funding to build out fiber-optic network infrastructure.

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

The city suffered from the “digital divide” that hurts mostly residents of rural, sparsely developed towns and poor urban centers, and municipal leaders say families with students in the public schools will benefit the most from the new initiative.

New Britain and GoNetspeed are using $10 million — including $5.8 million in ARPA funds — to string fiber optic lines on utility poles along about 170 miles of local streets.

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

Educators would welcome that improvement, since some New Britain students — like those in many of Connecticut’s larger, poorer cities — struggle to keep up with education that is increasingly based on digital communication.

The worst of the digital divide was seen in New Britain when the pandemic shut down in-person classes 2 ½ years ago.

At first, many hundreds of city students couldn’t connect to the Internet to participate in virtual classes or even to access assignments, readings and other materials online.

The school system and the city worked out an unusual arrangement with a local car dealership to temporarily resolve that. Schaller Auto installed hot spots in about a dozen cars and parked them each day in neighborhoods where Internet access is poor or altogether unavailable.

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 don’t have the capacity to do remote learning, and too many adults living in urban areas lack the capacity to go 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, the inequity is still an issue for children because so much of learning relies on a reliable, fast digital connection, Mayor Erin Stewart said.

“Our kids bring their Chromebooks home every day, and they still need access to get their homework done. 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 especially hard for families with two or more youngsters who need Internet access for schoolwork every night, and even worse if one or both parents need to work from home.

“Even if some people have Internet at home, they don’t have Internet adequate to provide bandwith for multiple children to be doing online learning simultaneously,” Stewart said.

Connecticut has been working for years to erase the digital divide, which leaves people in poor cities and sparsely populated towns with either no Internet access or extremely expensive plans offered by a single carrier.

“When companies are laying fiber optic networks, what’s not equitable is that they only go into neighborhoods where they guaranteed that people can pay for the service,” Stewart said. “And sometimes they charge $200 or in excess of $250 a month.”

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

GoNetspeed is billing the project as Connecticut’s most extensive public-private fiber optic Internet partnership. Construction is scheduled to start Jan. 3.

“Whether we are providing first-time fiber access to a customer or offering a choice of Internet service providers, New Britain residents and businesses win,” GoNetspeed Chief Operating Officer Tom Perrone said in a statement.

East Hartford this year started work with SiFi to provide high-speed fiber optic service through the city, a project that Mayor Mike Walsh sees as an enormous economic development advantage. Walsh reported that about 10% of the city has received coverage so far.

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