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Will They Have A Good Connection? Internet, Wi-Fi Issues Plaguing Families In Rural Parts Of New Jersey

KNOWLTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- As students adjust to remote learning, many in New Jersey are still struggling to connect to the internet. And in many rural communities, families lack access to Wi-Fi.

As CBS2's Aundrea Cline-Thomas reported Tuesday, local leaders are trying to change that.

A DSL internet connection would no longer cut it for Dr. John Bertoldo's veterinary practice. His practice in Knowlton Township, was able to upgrade, but that's not the case for everyone.

"We're much luckier than some of our surrounding neighbors that are off the beaten path," Bertoldo said.

That includes Mayor Adele Starrs, who is managing a slow connection.

"With four children trying to use Zoom for remote classes and it's just unacceptable, really," Starrs said.

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The mayor was among a handful of local leaders who joined U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer for a virtual town hall to discuss the disparities with internet access in rural areas.

With most school districts turning to online learning at least partially this fall, there's a heightened sense of urgency.

"We're working in the classroom with half the kids home, live feeding in. That's where I think I'm going to see an issue with the live feed," said Byrum's Mary Bitondo, a Sussex County teacher.

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According to a study from national nonprofit Common Sense Media, 37% of rural students do not have adequate internet connectivity. It finds the same may be true for up to 400,000 teachers across the country.

"We've been working with families to get them Verizon-sponsored hot spots, but they only work if there's cell service available in that home," said Sarah Bilotti, superintendent of the North Warren Regional School District.

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Internet providers say they could get fiber cables and other infrastructure to get broadband to these rural areas. The bigger issue is the cost.

"We can deploy all of Knowlton for about $1.2 million, but the problem is that with 1,000 people it's going to take a long time to pay that back and it's going to cost me about $1 million to get to Knowlton," said Robert Boyle, CEO of Planet Networks.

Representatives from local internet companies said federal grants or other financial assistance is needed to close the digital divide. With school set to begin in weeks, they vowed to work with local leaders to see if in the short term anything can be done.

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