Op Ed: Let’s use business methods to solve broadband challenges

Michele Siekerka.

For New Jersey families, companies, and communities concerned about bridging digital divides, help is on the way. New Jersey leads the nation in high-speed internet coverage, with over 99% of homes statewide already having access to broadband service. Yet only 78% of households are signed up for service.

Now, federal funding from the American Rescue Plan and bipartisan Infrastructure Act gives us the chance to become the first state in the nation to make broadband universally available to every home and business – while also getting more of our neighbors connected to the fast networks already in place.

The newly-created New Jersey Broadband Access Study Commission now needs to carefully weigh both goals – universal access and universal adoption – as it develops plans for putting these federal dollars to work.

Achieving both will hinge on smart choices and sound investments. Previous federal broadband efforts were littered with cautionary tales of wasteful duplication, mismanagement, and failed municipal broadband projects imploding in a sea of red ink.

Fortunately, we can learn from these mistakes. Gambling on the do-it-yourself option of a government-owned municipal network comes with big risks; this approach has left a long track record of financial failure from Minnesota to Massachusetts to Utah.

Conversely, history has shown that public-private partnerships are a much more reliable and cost-effective alternative. Our neighbors in Delaware, for example, recently announced a $56 million broadband infrastructure plan that leverages existing infrastructure, encouraging providers to extend their networks deeper into rural areas. Their approach also banks on partners with a track record of success and sets a model framework for other states to replicate as they prepare their plans for federal broadband funding.

Critically, we should also remember that building infrastructure is only half the battle. Getting more of our neighbors connected to that infrastructure is an equally urgent priority.

Until now, tight household budgets have been one big reason why many families have struggled to connect. But now, thanks to the new federal Affordable Connectivity Program, broadband service can now be free for 48 million lower-income households nationwide.

Participating families will get a benefit of up to $30 a month to buy internet service. Twenty leading internet providers have responded by announcing new high-speed plans for $30 or less, ensuring that eligible families can now get service at no cost.

More than 1.5 million New Jerseyans stand to benefit from this groundbreaking program. But to get this resource to the thousands of families who could benefit from it, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach that brings together the private sector with public and nonprofit partners.

While we’re focusing on sound ideas, we must also understand that municipal broadband networks don’t actually do much to get more people online. Where high speed networks are already universally available and affordable – if not completely free – local governments shouldn’t expect their own duplicative network to somehow move the needle.

The business community is ready to join forces with cities and counties across New Jersey to get more families online as soon as possible through community partnerships and other resources to overcome barriers to adoption, including access to devices, digital literacy, and investing in hiring and training local “digital navigators,” who can help guide unconnected neighbors to sign up for home internet and join the digital economy.

As Thomas Edison’s home state, New Jersey knows how to solve technological, educational, and economic challenges. Let’s apply that can-do spirit to the must-do challenges of broadband availability, affordability, and adoption.

The influx of federal broadband funding gives us an unprecedented opportunity to advance digital inclusion and equity – as long as state and local leaders use these dollars wisely and avoid repeating past mistakes.

Michele Siekerka is president and CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.