Warren and Sussex counties are among the areas of New Jersey slated to receive federal dollars to boost access to broadband internet, as Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5) and Gov. Phil Murphy (D) promoted their success in securing $190 million from the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund.
The fund is part of the American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law in March, and the $190 million will be dedicated to capital projects—one of which is broadband access. Murphy said the monies is in addition to the $6.2 billion that New Jersey will receive in State Fiscal Recovery Funds from the American Rescue Plan.
Gottheimer called the money “a very big deal,” but said that more needed to be done.
“For the sake of our families, economy, schools, and health care, we must continue fighting for communities across Warren and Sussex Counties to help boost their broadband connectivity,” he said May 21.
Pandemic Deepened Digital Divide
Murphy, Gottheimer and other state and local leaders described the pandemic’s effect on children who were forced to attend school online, businesses who had to shift to e-commerce, and companies whose employees had to pivot to telework at a press conference in Gottheimer’s 5th district in the parking lot of The Chocolate Goat Gift Shoppe in Lafayette.
Despite the Sussex County-based shop’s success since it opened its doors in 1998, lack of reliable broadband access has hindered shop owners Jennifer Koza-Todaro and Stephanie Koza-Austin’s efforts to expand the business.
New Jersey Board of Public Utilities President Joseph L. Fiordaliso, who was praised for his efforts at the event, said he was proud to join Murphy and Gottheimer in highlighting “this critical issue.”
“Ensuring the most hard-to-reach areas of New Jersey have access to high-speed Internet is an absolute necessity, especially in light of the last year,” Fiordaliso said in the governor’s press statement. “It is crucial that we close the digital divide, so our school children and businesses have the same educational and economic advantages regardless of where they are located.”
$190 Million Investment
Murphy and Gottheimer said the $190 million was secured with bipartisan help from most of New Jersey’s federal delegation. Additionally, they said the state Legislature is considering legislation that would create a commission to evaluate broadband access in New Jersey (A850). The Assembly passed the measure May 20.
Murphy reviewed an earlier version of the legislation and made revisions “to strengthen the bill, including greater representation of state agencies,” before sending it back to the Legislature.
“Every New Jerseyan deserves access to reliable, affordable, and fast broadband internet,” stated the governor. “Unfortunately, too many residents and businesses, especially in rural and low-income areas of our state, are still unable to take advantage of broadband internet access.”
Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-31) is the lead sponsor of A850. He said one of the lessons learned from the pandemic is “just how important internet access is for many aspects of modern-day life.”
“In order to avoid exposure to a deadly virus, many of our residents have been forced to rely on technology more than ever before to conduct their business. Yet far too many residents lack access to high-speed internet, which is why we need to look into ways we can ensure access for everyone,” Chiaravalloti said in the governor’s release.
Sen. Steve Oroho (R-24), who joined with Murphy and Gottheimer at the press event, said that the “Broadband Access Study Commission would study the logistics of developing community broadband networks to deliver high-speed internet access, especially to underserved communities like many in rural areas. From a competitive standpoint, closing the digital divide is a must.”
Crossing the Divide
The divide is real in Gottheimer’s district where the lawmaker said that despite the area’s many amenities and attractions, realtors often tell him that lack of reliable internet dissuades people from locating there.
Gottheimer said there are towns in his district where more than 20 to 25% of residents lack broadband access, citing an American Community Survey data spanning from 2015 through 2019.
“This is incredible … How are you supposed to attract people? How are you supposed to fight and compete in an economy? How are you supposed to do telemedicine or get on that Zoom for school or for work if you have no connectivity?,” he asked at the press conference. “And so that’s why its so important that we keep fighting to get dollars back to places like this one.”