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February 22, 2021

Telecom companies stress internet adoption amid state broadband reform efforts

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED As state lawmakers try to tighten oversight over internet providers, the industry, including Comcast, says it has invested more than $2 billion in Connecticut over the last seven years to build out the state’s broadband infrastructure.

Anyone who has watched in horror as their Wi-Fi conks out during a work Zoom meeting knows how important internet access is in 2021.

Melissa McCaw

But the providers of that service are also watching with concern as Connecticut’s state government ramps up efforts to seek greater control over their plans, policies and checkbooks.

“It's critically clear in the 21st century the importance of having access to reliable internet,” state Budget Chief 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.”

Central to the issue is the state’s persistent digital divide, the difficulty that a portion of the community has in getting online. Gov. Ned Lamont’s office estimates that 23% of Connecticut’s population can’t access reliable internet, either because they lack service, skills or the right devices. Lamont’s focus for 2021 is building out the broadband infrastructure.

Promotional photo for Comcast's low-cost plan.

“I am reminded of the saying, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” Lamont said of internet access. “When it comes to broadband, if you don’t build it, they won’t have a chance.”

Lamont laid out a plan allocating $2.85 million a year to the state Office of Policy and Management for the broadband mapping, planning and implementation required “to ensure a comprehensive build-out.”

Overseeing the telecom companies doing the build-out would be the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Public Utility Regulatory Authority (PURA), which would handle “investigations, regulatory oversight and proceedings, and consumer inquiries.”

In addition, the state Office of Consumer Counsel would represent customers in PURA proceedings.

In response to the governor’s proposal, the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association highlighted statistics that show 99.1% of Connecticut’s geography has access to broadband of 100 megabits per second or faster, thanks to cable company infrastructure investments of more than $2 billion in the last seven years. The state’s 10 providers have also taken extra steps during the pandemic to provide low-cost service and devices to customers who struggle to afford internet access.

“Connecticut is a national leader when it comes to broadband access and adoption,” said Timothy Wilkerson, president of the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association. “Our networks have really met the moment in this absolutely dramatic uptick of usage during the pandemic.”

“Our focus, particularly in a state like Connecticut where we have such robust deployment, we’re about adoption, actually getting people to sign up,” Wilkerson said.

Connecticut telecom companies have stepped up during the pandemic with multiple efforts to bridge the divide, he added.

Tim Wilkerson

Charter Communications, based in Stamford, partnered with the state on a program called Stay Connected K-12, which provides free high-speed, cable broadband internet to students’ homes. Discounted service is also offered to qualified low-income customers as part of another program, Spectrum Internet Assist.

Philadelphia-based Comcast offers a $9.95 monthly package to low-income customers in its service areas called Internet Essentials.

“Our Internet Essentials program – the nation’s largest and most comprehensive high-speed internet adoption initiative – was designed to address barriers to adoption and has helped connect tens of thousands of low-income residents across Connecticut to the internet,” said Kristen L. Roberts, Comcast vice president of communications for the company’s Western New England Region.

Since the pandemic, Comcast has expanded eligibility for the program multiple times and made the first 60 days of service free for those signing up before June 30.

With ongoing efforts made to expand adoption, the industry would prefer to focus on upgrading its cable and software to allow for higher speeds for all customers, Wilkerson said.

Plans are in the works for 10 gigabit cable broadband, which would eventually increase download speeds by a factor of 10.

Replacing older technologies will cost billions and already puts stress on companies in the very competitive Connecticut market, Wilkerson added. Telecom companies employ 6,000 people in the state and Charter recently doubled its headcount in Stamford.

Fee fracas

Adding to the tensions around the broadband issue is the sensitivity to any kind of price increase during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Comcast recently drew fire for a plan announced in November to impose a new cap starting in March on data for residential users. Under the cap, the company would have charged an additional $10 per 50 gigabytes increment of data customers used above 1.2 terabits, up to as much as $100 a month, a surcharge it said would only have affected 5% of customers.

Attorney General William Tong took aim at Comcast’s plan in early February, accusing the provider of ignoring pandemic hardships and withholding data.

William Tong

“I believe it is unconscionable to raise rates on Connecticut families when they need broadband internet the most and they are least able to bear higher cost for that service,” Tong said. “Connecticut families deserve choice in their broadband services, and it is well past time to expand competition and local regulation in this industry,” he continued.

Facing criticism in several states, Comcast said it would suspend any new caps or fees until July. (Comcast announced on Feb. 19 it would delay implementation of the data cap until 2022.)

Expanding access

What may be working against the providers in talks with the state is the growing perception that high-speed internet access has become a vital utility like power and water. With so many working or learning from home since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials see a greater role for themselves in controlling corporate behavior.

Tong’s statement on Comcast’s proposed data cap reflects the changing perception of providers, along with the desire by government to step up regulation, as policymakers increasingly view the internet as an essential utility.

The pandemic created a “new normal,” “yet this ‘new normal’ unfolded with great difficulty for many households,” stated a September report on the state’s digital divide compiled by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and Dalio Education. “Without broadband, moving school from classrooms to the internet was impossible for millions of households with school-age children.”

With detailed breakdowns of the extent of the broadband gap in various communities, the report concluded that Connecticut needed the governor to issue an executive order calling for the development of a state broadband plan and “State Broadband Office.” Digital divides in communities of color and cities like Hartford make the expansion of broadband use imperative, the report concluded.

In response to issues highlighted by the report, private philanthropies like Dalio Education partnered with the state and community givers like the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving early in the pandemic to address the digital divide, leading to the announcement in December that every public school student in Connecticut now had a laptop and access to high-speed internet.

Dalio also announced a partnership in July to install a network of wireless access points across Hartford. The initial pilot phase of that project focused on neighborhoods in the northeast section of the city and will be rolled out in other neighborhoods throughout 2021, according to the Hartford Foundation.

From luxury to necessity

Beyond affordability programs and philanthropic efforts, closing the digital divide requires making the decision to treat connectivity like any other utility, said Joe DeLong, executive director and CEO of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

“We need to start looking at internet providers the same way we look at other utilities that are considered to be necessities. We’re almost as dependent on internet connectivity as we are on electricity,” Delong said.

As a fundamental infrastructure issue, the expansion of internet access should be taken on by the federal government much like rural electrification was taken on in the 1930s, Delong added. State leaders have urged the state’s D.C. delegation to include broadband in the infrastructure bill soon to be taken up by Congress.

Joe Delong

In the meantime, telecom companies should be brought to the table to help bridge the gap, Delong said.

“I don’t believe that the providers are the enemy here by any stretch,” Delong said. “They’re a very important partner in working with the state in figuring out how to get it done.”

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