The "digital divide" became increasingly apparent and more detrimental to rural communities such as Sussex County in the spring of 2020 when COVID-19 shut down schools and forced students to begin a year-long ordeal of virtual learning.
The northern New Jersey rural county's students had to rely on spotty internet connections to access classes and complete their work.
Almost a year after schools closed, 85 of the 195 students statewide still experiencing network connectivity problems were from Newton.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation last week aimed at increasing reliable internet access in rural areas like Sussex County.
The new law, A-850 in the State Assembly and S-2864 in the Senate, will establish the Broadband Access Study Commission to examine the feasibility of setting up networks to provide faster internet speeds for the public. The commission will consider logistics such as the cost of building community networks while also studying what works and what doesn't in other areas of the country.
The commission will be set up to include representatives from the Board of Public Utilities, the Office of Information and Technology, Division of Rate Counsel, Department of Agriculture, New Jersey Economic Development Authority, Department of Education, Department of Community Affairs, the Senate and General Assembly as well as members of the public that offer expertise in the field and represent different areas of the state.
They will be tasked with evaluating impediments to broadband access for all residents of the state and solutions from all areas, including all public and private businesses or agencies.
Murphy signed the bill Wednesday, a week after it passed through the Senate June 30 and less than two months after it was approved in the Assembly May 20.
In Sussex County, provider Planet Networks was instrumental in bringing digital access to the 85 students who did not have it.
The company, headquartered in Sussex County, worked with Newton officials over the winter to install strong networks for the students in need. Owner Robert Boyle has been expanding Planet Networks' service throughout the county and also moved into northern Warren County.
A primary sponsor of the bill, Republican Sen. Steve Oroho said high-speed internet is a "necessity in today’s world, but the broadband so many of us rely on every day is unavailable in some rural and low-income communities that have been ignored by internet providers who are reluctant to invest in the necessary infrastructure.
The creation of the commission will evaluate alternatives to bring the high-speed evolution to "these forgotten residents and help close the digital divide," Oroho said.
While the past year illuminated the internet issues in certain areas of New Jersey, local residents have been advocating for stronger and fairer access since well before the pandemic. In July 2019, speakers at two separate forums at Newton High School and the Hope Township Municipal Building in Warren County highlighted the area's need for high-speed internet to keep up with modern school and business models.
An economic forum earlier in 2019 cited the lack of strong internet as a significant deterrent to businesses and residents who may otherwise settle in the area. Lawmakers are hoping that attitude will change, and the connectivity will improve, with the establishment of the new commission.
"This is an opportunity to finally bring state-of-the-art internet service to residents and businesses that have missed out on this game-changing technology," Oroho said. "It is time to level the playing field and ensure that even those in hard-to-reach communities can access fast, reliable internet service.