Op-Ed: Congress can help relegate NJ’s digital divide to the bad old days – NJ Spotlight

Samuel T. Frisby Sr.

While the state has made progress in closing the digital divide, lack of access to high-speed, low-priced internet still stands in the way of opportunities for education, work, healthcare and economic growth for far too many New Jerseyans. Thankfully, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in Congress presents an incredible opportunity to fully close this gap once and for all.

The increase in internet usage and dependency observed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic proved to New Jerseyans and the rest of the country just how essential internet connectivity is in our daily lives. As chairman of the Mercer County board of commissioners and the CEO of Capital Area YMCA, I see the difference that having internet connectivity can make for working families and students in low-income communities. It’s the difference between being able to schedule a quick online consultation with a health care professional and going to the emergency room. And it was the difference between being able to access online education tools and students having to teach themselves from paper when classrooms went remote. Closing the digital divide to level the playing-field with students in wealthier communities is something that will directly impact the communities I serve.

The good news is the infrastructure bill addresses broadband affordability head on with $14 billion in federal funding for a game-changing program called the Affordability Connectivity Benefit (ACB) that will provide qualifying households with a $30 per month benefit that goes towards their internet bills. This would make internet more affordable for 1.57 million New Jerseyans who would be eligible for the monthly benefit. Equally important, the infrastructure bill provides $2.75 billion in funding for digital equity programs that are designed to reach vulnerable communities who have traditionally had low internet adoption rates — including older Americans and low-income families. Among of its goals: Teach these communities digital literacy skills and educate them on how to utilize the internet. By pairing affordability and adoption, the infrastructure bill not only provides the resources to get everyone connected to the internet, but also makes real investments in ensuring the people who need the benefit are educated about its existence and understand how to make the most of it.

While there is an incredible amount of work left to do to heal the divisions and inequality in our country and here in New Jersey, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will make a real difference in leveling the digital play field to access to the internet. But in order to bring every American into the 21st century, we need our leaders in the House of Representatives to see the urgency of the situation and pass the bill now. I’ve seen what reliable broadband can do for my constituents and the community that the Capital Area YMCA serves — and what happens when they don’t have it. All New Jerseyans deserve access to the opportunities the internet presents. It’s time for the House to act to make it happen.


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