SHARON — Last year, it became clear to people in towns such as Sharon that their available Internet services left a lot to be desired.
In Barkhamsted, First Selectman Don Stein held a forum in December 2020 and proposed establishing an independent service network. Members of volulnteer group Northwest Connect conducted a survey and found people were dissatisfied with their Internet provider.
Some respondents said they were using two providers — Spectrum and Frontier — for better reliability. Stein and the group began exploring the idea of owning their own network service provider. That would include installing fiber optic cable.
At the time, Stein said, “Within this region, if we were successful in bringing in fiber optics, we’d set up a local utility, and we’d provide it. No town in the state has done this.”
Sharon residents took the whole idea of owning a network service a step further, and in October hired Sertex Broadband Solutions to conduct a broadband infrastructure feasibility study.
Under the contract awarded by the town of Sharon in October, Sertex, a leading regional expert in fiber optic network deployment, will develop a feasibility analysis with cost estimates for an open-access, fiber-to-the-premise broadband network that would serve all residents, businesses, government agencies and emergency service providers, according to a company statement.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal visited Torrington to announce that Connecticut is expected to receive $100 million to expand broadband coverage across the state and make high-speed Internet access affordable, he said. The federal investments to improve high-speed access and affordability were possible as a result of the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Package, according to officials.
But Sharon is going forward with its studies.
“For years, the lack of broadband connectivity has been a significant challenge for communities in Connecticut’s Northwest Hills,” Sertex representatives said. “The severity of the problem was painfully exposed during the pandemic when many families could not access remote work-from-home or distance learning.”
“Our children have suffered when attempting remote learning, our colleagues working from home have been stymied, and too many elderly residents are unable to participate in telehealth appointments — all because of connection speeds that are not sufficient for today’s world or from lack of access to broadband altogether,” said Jill Drew of the Sharon Connect Task Force.
Task force members said the feasibility analysis will outline the design requirements and costs for network construction, including aerial and underground fiber pathways, pole licensing, engineering, fiber drops, equipment installation, annual operating and maintenance costs, and a financial analysis. This information is essential for Sharon to apply for funding from Sharon’s share of the American Recovery Plan Act, they said.
“We’re thrilled to see this commitment a the federal level with this funding, and we’re really grateful to our state representatives being aware of this need,” Drew said. “(State Rep.) Maria Horn always talks about it, and talks to Gov. Lamont about it.
“There’s an identified need in Sharon,” she said. “We have 27 miles of road and 240 residents who aren’t served by Comcast. They have to use Frontier, which is not really high-speed, or rely on a satellite. Those who can afford it have tried to use their own satellite, but it’s a glaring example of how this can’t continue, and that we need access to reliable, affordable service.”
The task force chose Sertex for the study after conducting a survey; out of 1,500 residents, 500 responded, saying they favored going forward with the idea of a town-owned network. “That was the genesis of our task force,” Drew said. “Our role was to research and provide information for a town vote, and a decision to commit millions of dollars of taxpayer money to create a fiber optic network.”
Sertex will create a “high level design” that will include costs and a timeline for such a project, Drew said. “We’re working with them to have it (ready) by January, which is the start of our town budget cycle,” she said.
Stein said he hadn’t yet looked at the information about the $100 million in federal dollars for broadband in any detail.
“A couple of things come to mind,” he said. “The definition of high-speed Internet varies, depending on how much you know about it. To some degree, it’s about megabits for upload and download. It’s better, but what Northwest Connect is talking about is a billion megabits, which would give you a better level of service for schools, jobs, emergency services, things like that. That hasn’t been included in the state or the federal government’s plans. You need fiber optic cable.”
He also noted that the word “underserved” may have different definitions on the government level.
“We’re not underserved enough to get the funding ourselves; we’re not rural enough,” Stein said. “I’m not up to speed, but I’d be surprised if the $100 million will solve the problem. Hopefully, the state will use it in the right way. It’s a step in the right direction, because there are a lot of places in Connecticut that have no service at all. What it will mean for Sharon or Barkhamsted or Torrington, only time will tell.”
According to Drew, the National Telecommunication and Information Administration, an arm of the U.S. Commerce Department, will have a central role in the use of the $100 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. “They’ll have a say on who gets the funding,” she said. “NTIA has been appropriating that type of funding for years.”
“We just want to make sure everyone in town has access to what is a real necessity of life today,” Drew said.