New initiative aims to increase accessibility to broadband by making it available in town hall.

Published October 6, 2021

By Michelle Warren, The Chronicle

For families without internet at home, it has been challenging for students to engage in virtual learning during the pandemic.

A new initiative started by Gov. Ned Lamont's administration aims to increase accessibility to broadband by making it available in town halls and libraries.

As part of National Digital Inclusion Week, Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz were at an event at the Willimantic Public Library on Tuesday to celebrate the installation of a wireless cafe there.

"We believe this is something that everybody in our state should have access to," Bysiewicz said regarding the importance of broadband accessibility.

National Digital Inclusion Week, a national initiative designed to promote digital equity.

In addition to Bysiewicz and Lamont, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, state Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Mans-field, state Rep. Brian Smith, D-Colchester, state Rep. Susan Johnson, D-Willimantic, Wind-ham Mayor Thomas DeVivo, Windham Town Council President Dawn Niles, Connecticut Commission for Educational Technology Executive Director Doug Casey and others were in attendance.

"We're here to talk about the digital divide, which is very real here in Connecticut," Bysiewicz said.

Lamont's $43.5 million "Everybody Learns" initiative aims to close that divide to provide resources for students.

Funding for that initiative comes from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, as well as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency relief fund and the Governor's Emergency Education Relief fund.

"We couldn't do a lot of this without federal support," Lamont said.

Courtney referred to a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, that would invest $65 billion in infrastructure for broadband internet, among other infrastructure projects.

He said while increasing access to broadband is important, the bigger priority is increasing the debt ceiling.

However, Lamont said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been holding up the Democrats' efforts to raise the debt ceiling.

President Joe Biden was expected to review the debt ceiling soon, possibly as early as today.

Courtney and Lamont said it has been challenging to get a debt ceiling increase approved. Courtney said if the debt limit isn't raised, there are bills that won't get paid.

"Let's stay focused and keep the country together," he said.

Speaking about the importance of internet access, Lamont noted Connecticut students would have lost part of the school year without virtual learning.

When "Everybody Learns" was announced in July 2020, the goal was to purchase 50,000 laptops, provide at-home internet access for 60,000 students and fund 200 public hotspots.

One of those hotspots is now at the Willimantic Public Library, where a wireless cafe was set up outside so patrons can have access to the internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"It's fully functional now," Willimantic Public Library Director Dan Paquette said Tuesday. "So far, so good."

He said while the cafe was not used Monday because it was raining, a few people used it on Tuesday.

Paquette said a benefit of the cafe is that people can use the internet when the library is closed. "People out and about for the night can pick up the internet as well," he said.

Library staff also recently purchased 11 portable hotspot devices that patrons can take out.

Those were funded by a $8,000 Neighbors to Neighbors grant from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut.

During the press conference, speakers highlighted the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), which provides a $50 credit to many residents' monthly bills with most carriers.

"People can sign up directly through their carriers," Casey said. "It seems too good to be true. It really is true."

He said library staff will help people sign up for the credit.

According to Lamont's office, nearly 70,000 Connecticut residents participated in EBB as of Sept. 1.