Working for Smart Growth:
More Livable Places and Open Spaces


Broadband for All: The Geography of Digital Equity in New Jersey

Author: Kimberley Irby
September 2020

New Jersey Future promotes smart land use decisions, which includes focusing on infrastructure and equity to ultimately foster strong, healthy, resilient communities for everyone. Infrastructure impacts equity in that it drives where and how we use our land, including where people work. Given that better infrastructure is often found in wealthier communities, these communities have additional advantages that create or exacerbate patterns of racial and economic segregation. Accordingly, a lack of access to critical, high-quality infrastructure can leave lower-income communities at a great disadvantage.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Jersey Future has committed to using the lessons learned and new perspectives gained to fuel a strong and equitable recovery. When stay-at-home orders were announced, it became clear that broadband access would be a critical issue affecting the economy and education and that it would affect households differently, deepening the divide between those with more wealth and those with less. Given this, New Jersey Future began investigating the issue to determine 1) if broadband infrastructure in the state needs to be addressed to drive good and fair land use decisions and ensure equitable access and 2) if certain geographic locations were more or less likely to have access issues. Ultimately, access to broadband infrastructure still needs improvement, despite New Jersey being a relatively wired state, and there is greater need in certain low-income and rural communities, which should be prioritized in forthcoming efforts.

Today, the internet is the medium through which people access healthcare, housing, employment, safety, and education. It is an essential service. As a state, we deliver essential services like water, gas, and electricity through the mechanism of utilities. Yet broadband access is proving to be just as essential, but we do not employ the same delivery system. Thinking of broadband as an essential utility may help us develop the same expansive mechanisms of access and affordability that we enjoy in the other utility sectors..

The pandemic highlighted many disparities among racial and socioeconomic groups relating to public health—one of which is internet access. According to the NAACP, universal access to free broadband internet service is a significant equity issue, and must be addressed to make it easier for people to obtain information about their health and employment benefits and to participate in online education programs. The lack of ubiquitous internet access has been an issue that predates the pandemic and has broader implications beyond public health, but the inherent inequity has never been more glaring. For New Jersey’s recovery from the pandemic to be successful, everyone should have the ability to access the internet at reasonable speeds with affordable prices regardless of their geography or income. The state government, with the support of local governments, can take actions to help achieve this goal, which include obtaining better data about access, prices, and speeds, preferably through a statewide broadband office, and exploring the option of municipal broadband and public-private partnerships. The federal government plays a significant role in connecting underserved populations, both by funding infrastructure investments and enacting policies to promote alternative solutions, such as municipal broadband.

What are the effects of the digital divide in New Jersey?


With the pandemic, inequity in broadband access has been especially apparent in education. Even before this public health crisis, inequitable access contributed to the “homework gap.” Due to the transition to virtual-only education mid-March as a result of COVID-19 and the continuance of at least partial virtual learning this fall, racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps will likely widen because of disparities in access to computers, home internet connections, and direct instruction from teachers. All students have the potential to fall behind academically due to remote learning, but Black and Hispanic students could experience even greater learning losses, according to an analysis from McKinsey & Company.

New Jersey is one of many states scrambling to address the digital divide for students by the Fall given that most instruction is now online. In mid-March, schools were closed due to the pandemic. At the same time, major cable providers in North Jersey began to offer free Wi-Fi to households with school children that could not afford internet service. A month later, Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order prohibiting telecommunications providers from shutting off internet service due to nonpayment until 30 days after the public health emergency ends. Despite this, the digital divide is even wider than originally suspected, with about 230,000 students out of the state’s 1.4 million K-12 pupils lacking access to an internet connection or device needed for online learning, according to survey estimates that the New Jersey Department of Education released in July. This figure is more than twice as high as the 89,000 estimate from the Department in June, and about twice as high as the 110,000 estimate when schools first closed in March.

In mid-July, Governor Murphy announced a plan to close the digital divide ahead of the 2020-2021 school year, which is estimated to cost about $115 million, mostly from federal funds, to provide devices and internet connectivity for students in need. As of the end of September, $54 million is available and the rest is expected to be funded in part by philanthropic donations. It is not yet clear where the greatest needs are or how the money would be spent. Mark Finkelstein, the superintendent of the Educational Services Commission of New Jersey has called for the state’s school districts to identify the exact number of students who lack connectivity or need devices.

Even if significant progress is made before the start of the Fall semester, it is important to continually monitor participation. Two months after Boston public schools closed in mid-March, the City reported that one in five students hadn’t logged into class, suggesting that they could be virtual dropouts. In one case, a student was unable to log on because he relied on his mother’s smartphone hotspot, which quickly ran out of data. On a national level, in areas with many low-income students who have limited access to computers at home and spotty internet connections, some teachers see less than half of students participating in online learning. With many schools likely to have remote-only instruction for at least part of this school year, it is not only critical for all students to have an internet connection, but the connection must be reliable as well. The New Jersey Department of Education should collect data like online attendance to monitor this trend.

Public Health, Economy, and More

Though education is the hot button issue in regards to internet access at the moment, lack of access has implications for many areas of daily life. The increase of telemedicine, given that doctors are not seeing patients as regularly to limit the spread of the virus, leaves those without internet access unable to receive proper care. The shift to telework will affect those without internet access who seek remote jobs, which will likely become more prevalent, as well as those who struggle with remote work due to poor internet quality. For many small businesses that must now provide pick-up and delivery services, which they either chose not to or weren’t able to do before, need to set up an online ordering system to stay afloat as revenue declines. The digital divide only compounds disadvantage for our state’s homeless families and children in transitional housing will struggle to keep up without support from the government. Due to the pandemic, the Census is available online for the first time ever, but a lack of internet access in the households of certain cities, such as Paterson and Jersey City, may further obstruct the population tally in historically undercounted cities. If so, this will perpetuate the inequity of insufficient resources being allocated to the cities with the most need. These are just a few of many examples to illustrate the varied consequences of unequal internet access.

What is the extent of the digital divide in New Jersey?

Before the pandemic necessitated many to work from home or otherwise conduct more business online, the digital divide throughout the country was apparent in terms of geography, class, and race. Results from a 2019 Pew Research Center study confirmed the disparities we attribute to the term “digital divide” in its finding that racial minorities, older adults, rural residents, and those with lower levels of education and income are less likely to have broadband service at home. In general, the rural-urban divide is due to a lack of infrastructure, whereas the divide within urban areas is due to affordability issues. The racial digital divide exists between white and Black/Hispanic adults, a consequence of systemic racism determining where broadband infrastructure is built.

In 2018, NJ Spotlight published an interactive map that shows internet and computer access at the municipal level using American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimates for 2013-2017. The map shows that, even with a relatively high statewide percentage of internet access, New Jersey still has access issues in low-income urban and rural areas, similar to the rest of the nation. Specifically, the analysis found that people in fewer than 60 percent of households could go online in the cities of Perth Amboy, Salem, Bridgeton, Camden, and Trenton, whereas at least 95 percent of households had internet access in 17 wealthier communities in the north or central parts of the state. For reference, the statewide estimate was 83 percent and nationwide estimate was 79 percent. This translates to about 544,000 households without internet access in New Jersey.

Furthermore, the analysis found that New Jerseyans in the lowest income bracket have internet access at home at roughly half the rate of those in the highest bracket. Given what is known about racial income inequality, this means that households without an internet connection are most likely disproportionately Black and Latinx. It is clear that the high cost of internet service is a key reason why certain households lack access.

Of course, it is important to keep in mind that ACS data only provides estimates. Even so, they are likely more precise than the estimates from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC currently collects broadband data in a way that results in significant underestimates of unserved Americans. According to the FCC 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, New Jersey has 99.2 percent fixed terrestrial broadband coverage, tied with Connecticut for the state with the highest coverage in the nation. Though the ACS data is not perfectly accurate, it indicates that New Jersey is not actually near that lofty figure. To truly close the divide and achieve digital equity, It is important that we have the most up-to-date and accurate data possible.

Speed and Price

Data about coverage only tells one part of the story. In areas marked as having internet access, the download and upload speeds may be frustratingly slow. The FCC still classifies 25 megabits per second (Mbps) upload and 3 Mbps download as broadband, which some argue is inadequate according to current standards and needs. For reference, the average internet speed in New Jersey is close to 100 Mbps. Furthermore, despite the fact that cost is prohibitive to many, especially in urban areas, the FCC does not collect data on prices. However, BroadbandNow has created a National Broadband Map, which it claims features the most accurate, up-to-date information on availability and speeds and is the first to feature a national view of pricing down to the census block.

What can we do about the digital divide in New Jersey?

Since the start of the pandemic, internet providers have been suspending service disconnections due to inability to pay, and extending/expanding low-income affordability programs, but these are only temporary measures. To solve the internet access issue in the long-term, all levels of government have a role to play. An in-depth analysis of the role state governments play in connecting unserved communities can be found in the Pew Research report released in February 2020, titled “How States are Expanding Broadband Access.” Some of the recommendations include establishing a statewide broadband office; supporting broadband planning on a regional and municipal level; engaging local digital champions; providing tools for community planning; championing small providers; and collecting data from grantees.

BroadbandNow claims that the two most effective ways state and local governments improve the broadband situation in their areas are by: 1) creating better mapping and adopting smarter funding strategies and 2) promoting and encouraging community broadband solutions in low-competition areas. BroadbandNow further claims that both of these methods are at odds with the actions of dominant Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that have contributed to inflated measurements of internet speeds and competition at the federal level and fought against municipal broadband. 

Better Data via Statewide Coordination

Understanding where and what type of coverage is available in New Jersey is critical. In 2010, New Jersey was awarded nearly $5 million in American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 federal funds under the State Broadband Initiative (SBI) to develop a State Broadband Map and build awareness with community anchor institutions in ways that would help facilitate the integration of broadband into state and local economies. The program, called “ConnectingNJ,” was intended to gain better insight of broadband availability, adoption and broadband usage, and identify how broadband could help bring more growth opportunities, improved services, and better outcomes for the state’s overall economic growth. The New Jersey Office of Information Technology ultimately created the statewide map with data from 30 broadband providers and approximately 15,000 community anchor institutions.

Today, the State Broadband Map no longer exists, as the SBI program, and thus ConnectingNJ, ended in 2015. In December 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that the National Broadband Map, which was created through the SBI, would be decommissioned as it had become outdated. Though the FCC now provides a national “Fixed Broadband Deployment” map, this is informed by its overestimates and only shows information about the number of providers. 

Recently, progress has been made with the federal Broadband Data Act, which was passed in March 2020. The new legislation establishes more rigorous rules for the FCC’s collection of broadband data, aiming to correct the significant underestimation of Americans without broadband access from the existing Form 477 data. However, this new map has stirred up controversy and experts indicate that even if this conflict was resolved and work started on a new broadband map, it would be years before the FCC complies with the new law. Given the urgency of recovery from the pandemic, New Jersey should not wait until then.

The best way for New Jersey to collect precise data again is to have a statewide office dedicated to broadband, or at least revive an initiative similar to ConnectingNJ. The benefit of a statewide office, like the Minnesota Office of Broadband, is that it can communicate, coordinate, plan, and fund. Minnesota’s broadband office not only grants funds, but also serves as the main source of information and an advisor to communities working on assessing their broadband needs. Although COVID-19 is resulting in slashed state budgets, we can still look to examples like Minnesota, as well as New York, Illinois, and Georgia, for inspiration and guidance.

Our neighbor, New York State has the nation’s most ambitious broadband program, which commits $500 million in public funds to close the digital divide. It is run by the Broadband Program Office, the state’s single point of contact for broadband development and deployment efforts. The program provides grant funding through a “reverse auction” to support projects that deliver high-speed internet access (100 Mbps) to unserved and underserved areas of the state. In a presentation to the Reimagine New York Commission, Christopher Ali, a faculty fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, recommended that New York State consider a statewide data collection process to augment FCC data. He referred to the power of crowdsourcing and cited a study in Pennsylvania that used this method to gather data which proved to be more accurate than FCC data.

Illinois has the second-most ambitious broadband program, called Connect Illinois, with a commitment of $420 million. The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, which is based in Illinois, recently highlighted the progress in its home state, which has the country’s largest state-matching grant fund designed to achieve ubiquitous broadband access. The program works through local initiatives, private investment, and various partnerships. Recently, the Illinois Office of Broadband has partnered with Connected Nationa non-profit broadband mapping firm and developed a plan to produce more accurate maps. To do this, they will collect data from broadband providers and confirm it using field testing and consumer experience.

Georgia has taken it one step further and recently published its own Broadband Availability Map as part of the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative, which aims to increase economic, educational, and social opportunities for Georgia’s citizens and businesses. This statewide map, a first of its kind, uses location-specific data to provide a more accurate reflection of which households have high-speed internet available. It was created through a collaborative effort between private providers and the Broadband Office within the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. 

Though the effects of COVID-19 will challenge New Jersey’s budget, the cost of inaction in terms of leaving communities unconnected during a pandemic will be high. Some methods, like crowdsourcing data, could be more cost-effective and should be attempted in the near-term. Thinking about the long-term, New Jersey should start planning now, looking to these other states as models, so that all levels of government will be prepared to take concrete steps when funding is not as restricted.

Municipal Broadband

Related to affordability issues in urban areas and the disincentive to build out infrastructure in rural areas, one of the main issues contributing to the digital divide is the presence of ISP monopolies/duopolies in certain areas. The resulting lack of competition can lead to poorer internet service at relatively high prices. Though it is mostly up to the federal government to affect this, there are still plenty of actions the state/local government can take, one of which is exploring and facilitating municipal broadband.

Community or municipal broadband refers to broadband internet access services that are provided either fully or partially by local governments. Specifically, the municipality constructs and controls the infrastructure and then contracts out internet provision, rather than relying on Internet Service Providers to build the infrastructure and establish the market price. The benefit of municipal broadband, when done well, is that it provides high-speed internet with rates that are competitive with those of national ISPs.

Telecommunications giants are typically opposed to this and argue that government-backed networks would compete unfairly with private companies. However, the resulting competitive environment ultimately motivates ISPs to improve their service offerings. Currently, there are 22 states that either roadblock or outlaw municipal broadband. Fortunately, New Jersey is not one of those. To date, no municipal networks exist in the state, but there is pending legislation (A850) to create a “Community Broadband Study Commission” that would evaluate the feasibility of establishing community broadband networks. This legislation, if passed, could pave the way for New Jersey to add its name to the list of 33 states with a publicly-owned network offering at least one gigabit service, which is 10 times faster than the average internet speed in New Jersey.

According to the latest ACS 5-year estimates (2014-2018), the top five New Jersey municipalities by number of households without a fixed broadband subscription (i.e., cable, fiber optic, or DSL) are Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Trenton, and Elizabeth. At the lower end, Elizabeth has nearly 14,000 households without access and at the higher end, Newark has nearly 41,000 households without access. The top six municipalities by percentage of households without a fixed broadband subscription also include Paterson, and Trenton, as well as Camden, Perth Amboy, and Passaic City. Again, these estimates do not reflect true numbers, but they can help prioritize exploring municipal broadband options in the municipalities with the most need.

Public-Private Partnerships

Public-private partnerships are another popular alternative for expanding access. In fact, some types of municipal broadband are achieved through these partnerships. Recent examples include Verizon’s partnership with the South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff, to enable distance learning for 150,000 students, as well as its partnership with the Georgia Department of Education, which has undergone an expansion to include districts in 10 neighboring states including New Jersey. The latter partnership intends to bring reliable Internet access, devices and security solutions to 12.5 million students. In West Des Moines, Iowa, the city has entered into a partnership with Google Fiber, wherein the city will construct the underlying infrastructure and Google Fiber will be the “first tenant” of the network and city-wide internet provider.

In March 2020, another New Jersey Assembly bill (A3649) was introduced that would require the Office of Information and Technology to establish a statewide wireless network through a public-private partnership agreement. This agreement would allow the private entity to assume full financial and administrative responsibility for the construction, maintenance, improvement, etc. of the statewide wireless network, as long as the private entity covers some or all of the costs. The legislation further specifies that OIT and a private entity could enter into a lease agreement if the private entity pays for the up-front costs of the project. The private entity would receive some or all of the revenue generated during the lease term, operating the network in accordance with standards established by the office, and OIT would receive all subsequent revenue after the lease term ends. If passed, this project could have an affect on statewide internet access.

The City of Trenton is currently considering proposals from both AT&T and Verizon to deploy 5G networks throughout the city in which the companies would pay the city for each 5G small cell device they install. 5G refers to the next generation of wireless connectivity, which is able to support multiple devices and users with relatively fast speeds. The high speeds being advertised require a provider to use “high-band” frequencies, which are radio waves that can handle a lot of information at 1 gigabyte (i.e., extremely fast) upload/download speeds. However, these waves cannot travel far, so they require signal repeaters called “small cells.” Though 5G networks seem to be one possible solution for increasing internet access, Community Networks, a project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance warns that “wireless technologies like 5G are complementary to robust, wired networks; on their own, 5G networks will not achieve key goals, such as connecting rural America and closing the digital divide.” In rural areas, 5G will not be an option due to cost, as it requires fiber optic cables and a certain density of small cells. Additionally, 5G wireless networks provide only one percent of the broadband speed and capacity available on a network where the fiber goes straight to the home. Electronic Frontier Foundation claims that rather than investing in fiber to the home (FTTH), major competitors to cable companies are opting for 5G because it will cost about half as much as FTTH to deploy and allows them to avoid directly competing with cable.

What is the future of the digital divide in New Jersey?

Since its mainstream adoption about two decades ago, the internet has become essential to not only survive, but thrive in our society. Unfortunately, as thousands of low-income and/or Black and Latinx residents in New Jersey grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, they are at an even greater disadvantage if they lack internet access. Closing the digital divide could provide economic opportunity that is desperately needed as we try to recover from the pandemic’s devastating impacts on the state’s economy and optimize quality of life for residents.

The first step in achieving this goal is determining exactly where the gaps in internet access are. Large parts of the state have high rates of internet access, so certain areas should be prioritized, such as Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, and Trenton, to catalogue the detailed extent of the issue. To obtain better data, we can start by creating a coordinated, intentional statewide effort like the ones in Georgia, Illinois, and New York. To promote competition and bring service to areas with low rates of connectivity, we can consider the facilitation of municipal broadband. 

Currently, other organizations in the region are working to assess the situation in more depth and recommend specific policies to enact. For example, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission is conducting a three-part study on broadband deployment and access throughout the Greater Philadelphia area. The first part, published in June, is called Discussing Technology. It outlines broadband basics and deployment throughout the region. The second and third parts are expected to be published in the fall and winter, respectively. The second part, Understanding the Digital Divide will seek to determine the extent of the digital divide at the neighborhood level as well as its ramifications during the COVID-19 pandemic. The third part, Bridging the Digital Divide, will focus on formulating policy recommendations aimed at bridging the region’s divide .

Imagine the entire state of New Jersey connected to the internet, allowing all residents to find critical emergency information; schedule health-related appointments; participate in remote learning whether to finish high school or pursue career advancement; and join in community-building activities, to name a few of the possibilities. This scenario doesn’t have to be too far in the future. From the data we currently have, despite the lack of precision, we know that New Jersey is one of the most highly wired states in the nation. Thus, it’s within our reach to become the first state to actually achieve full broadband coverage. Given how critical internet access is to quality of life and equitable, inclusive communities, closing the digital divide should be a priority for New Jersey as it recovers from the economic damage of the pandemic. If we commit to it, we can cement our status as a broadband leader and prove that digital equity is integral to New Jersey’s future.

© New Jersey Future, 16 W. Lafayette St. • Trenton, NJ 08608 • Phone: 609-393-0008 • Fax: 609-360-8478

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