Burlington County Commissioners take action to help bridge the ‘digital divide’ with new initiative

The Burlington County Commissioners are taking action to help bridge the digital divide and make Burlington County into one of “America’s most connected destinations.”

The Commissioners voted to adopt a resolution directing the County Department of Information Technology to embark on a new initiative to upgrade and expand broadband infrastructure throughout the county with the goal of helping residents access affordable and reliable high-speed internet, according to a county press release on Aug. 17.

The Burlington County Connect initiative will identify areas lacking reliable high-speed service, expand fiber optic networks, leverage public-private partnerships to close broadband gaps and equip county-owned structures and areas with public Wi-Fi to improve access and connectivity. Special attention will be given to communities with disproportionately disadvantaged residents and seniors who do not have internet subscriptions, according to the press release.

“High-speed and reliable internet is no longer a luxury; it’s now a necessity that enables people to work, learn and access critical services,” Burlington County Commissioner Director Dan O’Connell said. “The Burlington County Connect initiative will help us identify and close gaps so that Burlington County residents have access to this critical technology, regardless of where they live or their income level.”

The initiative will be possible through a variety of potential state and federal funding streams, including the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF) aid awarded to the County from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Broadband improvements are among the eligible projects that the U.S. Department of Treasury have authorized counties and local governments to use SLFRF aid to support. Transportation capital improvements are not authorized, according to the press release.

With 820 square miles, Burlington County is the largest county in the state in land size and its geography includes a mix of suburban, rural and urban communities and centers. This has contributed to disparities with internet service, county officials said.

More than 15,000 Burlington County households had no internet subscription in 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Close to 14,000 used cellular plans for internet service and 5,800 had satellite service. An estimated 136,000 were connected by cable, fiber optic or DSL (digital subscriber line).

Burlington County Commissioner Felicia Hopson, liaison to the Burlington County Health Department and the Department of Human Services and a member of the Burlington County Minority and Equality Rights Task Force, said obtaining full broadband coverage in the county was essential for residents’ health and well-being.

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of infrastructure, particularly access to high-speed and reliable internet,” Hopson said. “Our residents now rely on the internet to work, attend school, obtain medical attention, communicate, obtain information and conduct countless other tasks. Those without it are at a severe disadvantage, so closing the divide is a must.”

Burlington County Commissioner Allison Eckel, who serves as the Board’s liaison to the Departments of Public Safety and Resource Conservation, said improving Burlington County’s broadband infrastructure would also fuel economic growth and community development.

“We need to make sure all of Burlington County has the infrastructure that allows local businesses to compete and communities to stay connected,” Eckel said. “Better broadband technology can help spur investment and development in disadvantaged areas and create new opportunities for our residents.”

The Burlington County Connect initiative follows other County actions aimed at closing the digital divide.

Last year, the Burlington County Library System (BCLS) launched a wireless hotspot and tablet lending program to help residents access the internet. Under the program, BCLS cardholders can borrow tablet kits and mobile hotspots for three weeks, with the option to renew if there is no waiting list.

More recently, the library has launched a mobile learning-lab to teach basic computer skills, including how to search the internet, email and communicate via video chat.

“Our Burlington County libraries have become great resources for residents who lack the technology or the digital literacy to connect, but more needs to be done to improve access for seniors and low-income families,” said Commissioner Tom Pullion, the Board’s liaison to the BCLS. “This new initiative will help close those gaps so that more of our residents can take advantage of the vast resources available exclusively online.”

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