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    Saturday, April 20, 2024

    ‘Internet for All’: Courtney and constituents push for continuing affordable online access

    East Lyme ― The country was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago when federal lawmakers authorized $14.2 billion to put everyone on what one local man described as “even footing” when it comes to accessing the internet.

    Now, the Affordable Connectivity Program is about to end.

    Sam Grillo, a resident of the AHEPA senior apartment complex on Roxbury Road, was flanked by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney at the East Lyme Public Library on Tuesday as he called on legislators to extend the program that provides free or reduced-cost internet service for low-income households.

    Unless Congress acts, the program that currently puts 23 million American households online is expected to run out of money in April. The program stopped accepting new applications earlier this month.

    The program pays up to $30 a month for Internet service for those who make less than $29,160, and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal land including the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan reservations.

    “For seniors like myself, the internet is more than just a tool for entertainment or information,” Grillo said. “It’s a gateway to a world of opportunity.”

    More necessity now than convenience, Grillo said, reliable internet providers “are lifelines for staying connected to loved ones, accessing health care services and engaging with our communities.”

    Courtney acknowledged there are “a lot more people who are not aware of it who could benefit from it as well.”

    The U.S. Census in 2022 found 90 million households in the qualifying income range.

    By the Numbers

    185,922: Connecticut households in the program

    $5.1 million: The monthly cost of the program in Connecticut

    1 in 9: Participating households in Eastern Connecticut

    Based on data provided by the White House as of February

    Courtney said the program began at a time when internet access was critical to staying connected during the public health emergency. But the end of the pandemic hasn’t changed the nation’s reliance on the internet, which has become a place where many people work, learn and receive medical care.

    Deb Delaney, an AHEPA resident, emphasized the need for the program is still there.

    “We can’t be cut off from it, because then we’re cut off from each other,” she said.

    Courtney expressed optimism an extension will receive bipartisan support if it can rise above “the noise” of Washington to get a hearing in Congress.

    The Biden-Harris Administration in October sent Congress a supplemental request for $6 billion to extend funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program. In January, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill that would provide $7 billion to extend the program.

    Courtney said part of the program involved working with internet providers to ensure they have basic packages under $30 a month.

    Comcast’s western New England director of community impact, Brad Palazzo, said his company offers an affordable internet option for $9.95 per month and an enhanced package that’s twice as fast for $29.95 a month.

    He said the affordable packages have provided internet service for 72,000 households since 2011.

    The company also funded programs at the Easterseals Veterans Rally Point in Norwich, including the launch of a computer/media lab where clients can learn how to use the technology to access VA benefits and job opportunities.

    Ellen Paul, executive director for the Connecticut Library Consortium, said libraries have long been at the forefront of free internet access. She said the community hubs over the past quarter century evolved from providing desktop computers to providing laptop devices and mobile hotspots so patrons could “take the internet home.”

    “But then the pandemic happened, and the world really changed in an instant,” she said. “All of a sudden, even though we knew that the internet was important and we knew technology was important, it just exploded.”

    The East Lyme Public Library started with two mobile hotspots for residents before realizing it needed at least six to meet the demand, according to Assistant Director Christopher Larson – “and that’s probably still not enough.”

    Barbara Tasca was among the AHEPA contingent advocating for extended funding. She said internet access can be a solution to the problem of social isolation among older adults.

    U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy last year issued an advisory identifying social isolation as a public health concern that threatens people’s physical and mental well being.

    “A lot of people don’t get out, and if they can get the internet and such, they can have communication,” Tasca said. “They can find out what’s going on in the world.”

    e.regan@theday.com

    Editor’s note: This article was updated to clarify the type of packages offered by Comcast.

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