Broadband Internet Access, County by County: Mapping New Jersey’s Digital Divide

Colleen O'Dea | November 21, 2014 | Map of the Week, Maps
A high-speed Internet connection is key to many aspects of life in the Garden State, but Census report shows access is constrained by income

Twenty-five years after the dawn of the Internet, the first data released on technology in local homes shows how ubiquitous computers and broadband Internet access have become in New Jersey, as well as the wide gap between wired and unconnected based on income.

More than 86 percent of New Jersey households had a computer — desktop, laptop, smartphone, or tablet — in 2013 and nearly 8 in 10 also had a high-speed Internet connection. Slightly less than 1 percent — or about 22,000 households — accessed the web via a dial-up connection, and more than a half million households, or 17 percent of all, had no Internet access at home.

But the data also showed that being connected was strongly correlated with income. Of some 800,000 New Jersey households with income of $35,000 or less, only 54 percent had broadband Internet access and 45 percent had no connection at all. Conversely, nearly 93 percent of 1.5 million households with incomes of at least $75,000 subscribed to a high-speed Internet service and only 7 percent had no web access at home. Of those with incomes between $35,000 and $75,000, nearly 8 in 10 had broadband access, while 2 in 10 had no access.

These differences raise equity concerns, especially given the growing importance of technology and being able to access the Internet in contemporary life. In particular, with schools demanding that more work be done via computer, research for reports done online, group project collaborations conducted via Skype and Google Drive, and papers emailed to teachers, the lack of technology and Internet access can affect student achievement.

“The children most likely not to have access to computers and Internet at home attend the state’s high-poverty schools,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Newark-based Education Law Center. “This is why we need to adequately fund these schools so they can provide these opportunities to our state’s most at-risk children.”

The wealthiest — Hunterdon, Morris, and Somerset — had the highest rates of computer ownership and broadband Internet access: about 91 percent of households had computers and 86 percent or more were online. Cumberland, New Jersey’s poorest county, had the lowest rate of computer ownership — 81 percent — and second-lowest rate of broadband Internet access — 69 percent, ahead only of Salem County, which had a 68.8 percent rate. While municipal data is not yet available, Essex County — home to Newark, the state’s largest special-needs school district — had the third-lowest rates of computer ownership, 82 percent, and broadband Internet access, 72 percent.

The income gap in technology usage is one that has been found by several other studies, most notably by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. A May 2013 Pew survey found that “19 percent of non-Internet users cite the expense of owning a computer or paying for an Internet connection” as the major reason why they are not online. And a 2012 Pew report titled Digital Differences stated that “age (being 65 or older), a lack of a high school education, and having a low household income (less than $20,000 per year) are the strongest negative predictors for Internet use.”

There are similar age- and education-related correlations among New Jerseyans. For instance, 96 percent of households with children had at least one computer and 88 percent had high-speed Internet access, but fewer than a quarter of senior households had a computer and fewer than two-thirds had broadband Internet. Similarly, 7 in 10 households with an adult who had not completed high school had a computer and 1 in 10 were not online, but 97 percent of those including someone with at least a bachelor’s degree had a computer and 96 percent had Internet access.

Studies by Pew and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration have found a certain proportion of the population to be uninterested in technology. For instance, the NTIA, a branch of the federal government whose stated goal is making the Internet available and affordable for all Americans, reported last month that nearly half of those households that do not have broadband Internet access at home “cited a lack of interest or need as the main reason why.” But about 3 in 10 said they did not have a high speed connection because “they could not afford” it.

“The continued persistence of financial and other barriers to Internet use is an urgent problem for policymakers,” the report states, because the “Internet has become integral to daily life in the United States.”

A May 2010 Pew survey found that Americans believed people who did not have broadband Internet access at home were “at a major disadvantage when it comes to finding out about job opportunities or learning career skills, or when getting health information, learning new things for personal enrichment, and using government services.”

“For many Americans, access to computers and high-speed Internet connections has never been more important,” wrote Thom File and Camille Ryan in the Census report “Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2013” issued last week. “We use computers and the Internet to complete schoolwork, locate jobs, watch movies, access healthcare information, and find relationships, to name but a few of the ways that we have grown to rely on digital technologies.”

The U.S. Census Bureau surveyed households about computer and Internet usage for the first time as part of its American Community Survey last year, allowing it to report on technology at the county level for the first time and, eventually, at the municipal level.

Given the relative youth of the Internet age, the increases in technology adoption by the public have been dramatic. According to the NTIA, just 37 percent of American households owned a computer in 1997 and fewer than 2 in 10 were connected to the Internet, with broadband access limited to about 10 percent of households as recently as 2002. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of Americans accessing the Internet on any device — computer or mobile phone — rose by 18 percent. In New Jersey, where usage of devices exceeds the national average, the proportion of the population online rose by nearly 4 percent.

The NTIA provided grants to organizations that operate public computer centers that provide access to broadband, and computers to those who lack access at home using money from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In New Jersey, Thomas Edison State College got $5 million for public computers centers. According to the latest progress report on the grant, the project added 845 computer workstations at 125 public libraries, upgraded broadband connectivity at 91 public libraries, and funded job-search assistance and other online resources at all public libraries across the state. In total, 148 libraries got broadband upgrades, computers, or both.

The NTIA’s October report found that the increase in the use of smartphones “reflects an encouraging narrowing of the adoption gap among historically disadvantaged groups,” including families with incomes below $25,000 and the disabled. However, the report concluded, there remain “persistent disparities in computer ownership and Internet use overall.”