Assembly lady: We have a historic opportunity to bring ultra-fast internet service to everyone | Opinion

By Shavonda E. Sumter

President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill has given New Jersey a golden opportunity to provide high-speed Internet access to thousands of disconnected families in our state. To achieve this goal, government agencies in Trenton must make fair decisions about how to spend the $100 million or more in federal broadband funding that is coming our way soon.

Limiting our view to a narrow discussion of broadband infrastructure ends up ignoring the urgent needs of the most vulnerable and disconnected people here in our state. After all, 98.8% of homes here in New Jersey already have broadband available and offer the fastest download speeds of any states in the country.

However, in my hometown of Paterson, despite this ubiquitous availability of ultra-fast internet services, only 59% of households subscribe. Similarly, in Newark and Camden, less than 60% of households have signed up for broadband at home.

Our most vulnerable populations, black, Hispanic, and low-income families, are significantly less likely to have an Internet connection at home than white and wealthier families. That’s an inequality that left marginalized communities behind as the COVID-19 pandemic forced education, healthcare and office jobs all to migrate online.

This ‘adoption gap’ is the real cause of the ongoing digital divide in New Jersey. It’s time to prioritize our scarce resources.

Fortunately, we have the ability and resources to address this issue. With President Biden’s pioneering Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), broadband service is now completely free for families in need. Since the White House has received commitments from broadband companies to increase speeds and lower prices for participating customers, the ACP’s $30 monthly benefit can now cover the full cost of monthly Internet service for more than 1.5 million vulnerable New Yorkers. Jerseyans cover.

Promoting adoption when the internet is available and free is essentially a social and economic challenge. Even with the free internet service available, other barriers such as digital skills shortages, lack of access to a connected device, and a lack of knowledge about how to even apply for federal broadband assistance still block far too many black and brown families from going online. to go .

More than $100 million in federal broadband funding will come our way over the next few years from the Infrastructure Act. This presents a great opportunity to invest in a nationwide campaign to boost broadband adoption and the digital skills needed to take advantage of it in underserved communities.

Funding nonprofits, schools, libraries and other community institutions is essential to provide digital literacy classes in low-income neighborhoods. Recognizing that one in three American adults lack the basic digital skills needed to get the most out of a home internet connection, it’s critical that we provide them with the resources they need.

We need to help families who don’t have laptops or desktops in their homes – that’s about 40% of all households in Paterson and Newark, and more than half in Camden. The ACP offers a one-time grant of $100 to purchase a connected appliance. Unfortunately, in many cases, that will not cover the full cost. We ultimately need a state-level program to fill the gap.

It is essential to hire and train a strike force of Digital Navigators who can work on the ground in low-connection communities to help digital newcomers scale the walls to online opportunities. Pilot programs have confirmed that this kind of one-on-one support is critical to helping digital latecomers overcome their skepticism, fear and confusion and get online.

With the support of the Legislative Black Caucus, I am sponsoring a bill to establish a Repairs Task Force in the state of NJ. In efforts to help our state confront and address the generational damage caused by centuries of systemic discrimination, the creation of a task force is necessary. But even as we fight to correct historical injustices, the least we can do in the meantime is to stop perpetuating and deepening inequalities through our current policy making.

While some of our predominantly white rural communities have clear network infrastructure needs, Governor Phil Murphy has already pledged funds to close these rural broadband gaps. Now is the time to show an equal commitment to closing the digital divide in our predominantly black and brown urban centers.

Every community in our state deserves an equal opportunity to share in the promise and advancement of the digital age. No one should be left without internet access.

Assembly Shavonda E. Sumter (D-Passaic) represents the 35th Legislative District, which includes parts of Bergen and Passaic counties.

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