Bridging the gap of NJ’s digital divide

In a state that has nearly 9 million people, about 300,000 residents don’t have access to broadband service.

“What you’ll see in Jersey City, we call the ‘french fries For Wi-Fi.’ You’ll see kids just sitting outside the McDonald’s, buying French fries because it’s the cheapest thing on the menu just for 50 cents, and they connect to the Wi-Fi and do their homework in the parking lot,” said EveryoneOn Regional Director Kurt Peluso. “In Salem County, we’re seeing students who sit in the parking lot outside the school building after hours to tap into the Wi-Fi just so they can complete their homework. You think about the fact that it’s okay now because we’re in 80-degree weather, but when you think about this in December, January or a rainy day, now these students are contemplating, ‘Do I get wet, do I get a cold or do I do my homework?'”

Peluso says his organization is working to get people across the nation connected to the internet and to get them computers.

“The solution is building up the infrastructure in the rural communities so everyone can have basic access. In the lower income areas, it’s finding the funding and giving people the resources they need to succeed,” said Peluso.

But how do you do that? That was the topic at the New Start New Jersey and Heldrich Center’s “Bridging New Jersey’s Digital Divide” panel discussion.

Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas Senior Advisor for Community Development Jordana Barton told the room one solution is working with banks. She explained the Community Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as CRA, is a law that addresses a bank’s responsibility to invest locally. Barton says it has now been updated to include broadband.

“Make it part of your economic development plan because banks are looking to those economic development plans and saying ‘How can we fit in?'” said Barton.

She says banks get evaluated and get a CRA rating which is very important to their growth.

“If you have a bad CRA rating, you can’t grow, you can’t acquire other banks, so it’s not just bad for reputation, right? All banks want to do outstanding in this, but it’s bad for business,” said Barton.

Now that broadband is included in the law, Peluso says it’s a big opportunity to get much needed funding.

“It’s a huge obstacle, so if the local banks chip in and do their part, it’ll benefit not just the individuals but the whole community,” said Peluso.

In 2015, a public hearing was held after 17 towns in southern New Jersey asked for better service. Stefanie Brand, director of the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, shared some of their stories.

“People who own small businesses didn’t have internet at their office, so they had to take all their credit card information and put through the credit card billings when they got home at night. Students couldn’t get their homework done. There was a medical facility that couldn’t upload the data that they needed to upload to Medicaid and Medicare in order to get reimbursed,” said Brand.

She says they eventually settled with the company, but the broadband fight across the state is not done.

Peluso says his organization has helped to connect 10,000 people in New Jersey alone. Its goal is universal connection to all.