As Republican and Democratic leaders in the General Assembly inch closer to a budget deal, one casualty of the negotiations may be the Office of State Broadband. Elimination of the office has been proposed in at least two budget plans, despite costing the state no money.
The Office of State Broadband was established in 2015 to find ways to bring broadband internet access to everyone in the state, mainly through grants and private-public partnerships.
The broadband office is part of the state Office of Consumer Counsel. Elin Swanson Katz, Connecticut’s Consumer Counsel said her small staff punches well above its weight - most recently helping East Hartford become the first municipality in the state to provide townwide broadband access.
“They will be building a fiber network in East Hartford to every single premises with no capital expenditure by the city,” Katz said. “This is all private money. That's phenomenal -- East Hartford just took a giant step forward.”
Katz said fast, cheap internet is a big selling point for small tech companies. Bruce Carlson, President and CEO of the the Connecticut Technology Council says Connecticut is doing ok on the fast internet part. But cheap internet is another story.
“Connecticut has more fiber in it than any other place that one could think of. The question really is access to that fiber -- and that's a cost question,” said Carlson. “We have a number of companies, in particular small tech companies that simply have not been able to access the fiber that's available.”
Carlson says the high cost of fast broadband internet is a significant stumbling block to Connecticut becoming a technology hub for the Northeast.
Another issue of big concern for the Office of State Broadband is the so-called “homework gap.” With so much homework in middle and high school being done electronically, students from rural or low-income communities with little or no internet access are falling behind. The homework gap is the subject of a new documentary by filmmaker Rory Kennedy.
In 2016, the Office of State Broadband prepared an assessment of the homework gap in Hartford. Katz said they found serious broadband challenges, especially in Hartford’s North End.
“And so we see students going to McDonald’s to do their homework,” Katz said. “We see them lining up 10 deep at the Hartford Public Library to use the computers, but they close at 6:00 pm. We hear that they are sitting outside in all kinds of weather trying to connect to Wi-Fi.”
The broadband office has been working with Mayor Luke Bronin, the city council, neighborhood groups, and internet providers to find solutions to Hartford's broadband shortcomings.
But Katz fears all of this good work will soon come to an end. The Office of State Broadband was eliminated in Governor Malloy's original budget proposal, as well as the Republican budget proposal that was eventually vetoed by Malloy.
So why eliminate an office that comes at virtually no cost to the state?
“To see the broadband office be cut at this point -- I asked for no budget this year -- makes no sense to me,” said Katz. “I mean these are times for tough choices, and as the consumer advocate I can appreciate that, but this isn't a tough choice. This doesn't impact the budget at all.”
“We don't need an Office of Broadband. There's no need,” said Republican Senate President Len Fasano. “I have yet to have one business ever come up to me and say, ‘You know what? we need the state to run the broadband.’ We can't even register motor vehicles correctly. We have no business in that. It's not core function. We shouldn't be doing it -- period.”
But Bruce Carlson of the Technology Council sees it much differently. He said broadband access is as important as transportation infrastructure when it comes to attracting new businesses to the state, and Connecticut isn't doing enough to make it happen.
“I think the Office of State Broadband gets a little bit of a bad rap,” Carlson said. “They took an idea, which was ‘We needed to have more broadband.’ It is a very complicated issue. Here is a one or two person office jumping into something that frankly is an extremely complicated issue.”
The governor's latest budget spares the Office of Broadband from elimination. But Republican and Democratic leaders in the General Assembly have been working closely together on their own budget compromise, and there's no telling whether they will propose eliminating the office.