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Opinion: The Broadband Challenge Is a Bipartisan Issue

In Upstate New York, leaders from both parties have taken up the work of getting people connected to high-speed Internet, doing so with the help of allocated funds from the federal and state government.

Closeup of yellow broadband cables with blue plugs plugged into a board.
(TNS) — Government, it seems, gets it: High-speed internet is an essential, not a luxury.

That evidence shows up in the push by Democratic Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz to extend broadband service to parts of the county where it is only a rumor. It shows up former Republican Rep. Chris Jacobs' earmarking of nearly $4 million to increase broadband internet in rural areas of Niagara and Orleans counties.

And it shows up in this week's announcement that $100 million in federal funds will help expand broadband to 100,000 households in New York. The money comes from the 2021 American Rescue Plan and, although wasn't immediately clear how the money would be distributed in Western New York, plans are to use it to expand broadband access to low-income families in affordable housing developments.

If the need for this expansion wasn't clear before 2020, it became painfully so that spring, when the Covid-19 pandemic sent students home, there to continue their schooling remotely, using — yes — high-speed internet. Many didn't have it. As in many other cities, those living in the poorest sections can't afford it. Given Buffalo's infamously high poverty rate, the problem was, if anything, even worse here.

Internet access was also needed to schedule a Covid vaccination when the shots first became available. For some, that would have been a life-and-death issue.

But it's not just in extreme events that broadband is essential. You're behind the 8-ball if you're looking for a job and don't have ready access to high-speed internet. If you're looking for an electrician or a plumber or a new place to live, the internet is the place to go. Paying bills, researching work or school projects, keeping up with the world all require internet access, or at least benefit from it.

That digital divide is not just an economic challenge to those without broadband, but a canyon that will create social divisions buy sowing hopelessness into millions of American lives. It's an actual threat.

Fortunately, the county has an example of responding to this very kind of challenge. In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt put people to work and served urgent needs though projects such as the Rural Electrification Act and the Tennessee Valley Authority, whose goals included providing inexpensive electric power where there had been none.

FDR recognized the danger of a country so disparate in its access to a fundamental driver of modern life. So it is with access to broadband, both in urban and rural areas where it is lacking.

That's what these different projects are aiming to fix, without regard to any social factor but the demands of life in the early 21st century. Western New York will be the better for it once the need has been met.

© 2023 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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