The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities is joining Dalio Education to provide more equity for students and job seekers in Connecticut by ensuring access to the internet throughout the state.
While only the partnership was announced Monday, sufficiently closing the digital divide likely will cost tens of millions of dollars, which would require federal assistance, Andrew Ferguson, education director for Dalio Philanthropies, said. No financial commitment was made Monday.
Specific recommendations about how to approach the problem are expected to be released around Labor Day, he said, adding that any financial commitments would be matching funds to municipal spending aimed at tackling the issue.
One path could be a collaboration of municipalities creating high-speed fiber optic networks, rather than a patchwork approach, Ferguson said.
“What this is about is people who share a common goal,” CCM Executive Director Joseph DeLong said. “We’re going to find a way to move the needle, and hopefully find a way for others to join us.”
The exact cost of addressing the issue will be determined by various factors, the most expensive of which is building infrastructure to reach rural communities, Ferguson said.
“We think the benefits far outweigh the costs,” Ferguson said, adding that to completely accomplish the goal, the federal government likely would have to provide funding.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed inequity among the state’s students regarding access to the internet and computers, with some making a relatively seamless transition to online classes while others struggled.
Barbara Dalio said that as much as 35 percent to 40 percent of the state’s students — the equivalent of tens of thousands of students and their families — lack sufficient access to the tools required for distance learning, adding that “connectivity is really the issue.”
She said that some students are forced to do their schoolwork in public parking lots outside of businesses with Wi-Fi hot spots, as well as research and write papers on their cellphones.
“We believe access to high-speed, quality internet coverage is a fundamental right,” Dalio said. “Internet access is as essential as electricity and water. Students need the internet for learning and teachers need access for engaging their students. Families need access, too. If you don’t have internet access it is nearly impossible to find a job, connect with your doctor, or secure government services.”
DeLong said CCM and Dalio Education will work with municipal leaders to determine what is needed in individual communities.
“The issue of the digital divide is something that none of us are going to be able to conquer alone,” he said, adding that addressing the discrepancies will help students as well as those seeking employment.
In the coming weeks, CCM and Dalio Education are expected to announce collaborations with communities that will expand high-speed internet access for thousands of families, DeLong said.
Dalio Philanthropies has made an attempt to close the divide during the pandemic by purchasing 60,000 laptops for students who lacked electronic devices needed for distance learning.
The last of those laptops are expected to be delivered to municipalities by the end of the week, Ferguson said.
“We believe government can’t solve every problem on its own, nor can philanthropy, nor can nonprofits or the private sector,” Dalio said. “By collaborating with CCM and municipal leaders, we think we have a better chance of helping to solve this problem than if any one sector trying to tackle it on its own. Through teamwork, anything in possible.”
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