TRENTON, N.J.—511,354 New Jersey households find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide. And according to National Telecommunications and Information Administration data from 2019, 22.6% cite too high an expense as the reason they go without.
The digital divide refers to the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not. A clear view of the gulf in New Jersey is difficult as available statistics paint an incomplete portrait of the state of access.
Little to no data exists on the number of NJ residents that have Internet within their homes but lack the necessary bandwidth, digital literacy expertise, and/or home equipment to support online learning and work from home activities simultaneously.
Vulnerable residents typically rely on public libraries to connect to an increasingly digital society. The abrupt closure of these institutions during the 2020 pandemic along with the sudden shift toward virtual education and services has made this divide more pronounced in New Jersey.
The Library Alliance of New Jersey, composed of the New Jersey State Library, LibraryLinkNJ, the New Jersey Library Association (NJLA) and other library groups, proposes a $21 million program to assist in closing the digital divide throughout the state.
A potential source of funding could be the Federal Cares appropriation which has been received in New Jersey. Several states, including Ohio which provided $18 million to public libraries under this program, have already seen successful implementation of funding for digital equity initiatives.
Plan details have been shared with Governor Murphy’s office and are available at njla.org/digital-equity-for-all-residents.
“It is critical for library leaders in urban communities to address the digital divide and secure resources to allow residents to have equal access to technology,” said Corey Fleming, Director, Paterson Free Public Library. “We must continue to work on local, state and federal levels to ensure that the digital gap is addressed for all New Jerseyans.”
The digital divide deeply impacts communities in urban areas where economic disparity is greatest. However, cities like Paterson are not alone. Rural communities also struggle with access issues.
“The digital divide is a very real problem,” said Jennifer Schureman Brenner, Director, Cumberland County Library. “Schools have given devices to students and some major internet providers have offered free or reduced rate internet, but that doesn’t help those who live in rural places like Cumberland County.”
Brenner said that the broadband in Cumberland County is so low that it is almost impossible for many residents to find an internet signal with a hotspot let alone be able to use the free or reduced internet.
“Internet providers aren’t interested in putting money into laying lines or building towers in a community that may not be able to afford their services, or where there isn’t an abundance of population,” she explained. “The pandemic really brought this to light and many were left with no resources or recourse to access their job, school work, file for social services or attend telehealth appointments.”
The New Jersey Library Association (NJLA) supports increased access and equity across the state, and agrees with the following goals cited by LibraryLinkNJ’s Taskforce on Post COVID-19 Alignment, Trends & Strategies (TOPCATS):
- Improve the technology infrastructure in New Jersey to address connectivity issues in urban and rural areas
- Advocate for reduced rates from Internet Service Providers and for the development of need-based government subsidies to provide affordable internet options for all residents
- Invest to assure all community anchors such as libraries, government buildings, healthcare offices, and schools have a minimum of 1Gbps Internet access
- Invest to develop additional capacity to support free WIFI at least 1Gbps Internet access through a network of community anchors such as libraries, government buildings, healthcare offices, and schools
- Develop a WIFI Locator tool, accessible by internet and by phone, to allow New Jersey residents to easily find free WIFI spots in their area
- Address technology gap by providing internet capable equipment to those without, including providing funding for lendable equipment including laptops and WIFI hotspots
- Provide access to robust digital and informational literacy training for all New Jersey residents, including a required curriculum for students K-12 (A248) taught by skilled professionals and funding for training of adults and seniors through local libraries, community colleges and human services departments
As the first steps to accomplishing many of these goals on the federal level, NJLA also supports New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. and South Carolina Congressman James E. Clyburn’s Connect All Americans to Affordable Broadband Internet Plan, and the Federal Communications Commission’s Keep Americans Connected Initiative.
For more information on how libraries are positioned to address digital inequity in New Jersey, please contact Sarah Lester, Public Policy Chair, NJLA, email@example.com.
About the New Jersey Library Association (NJLA)
Established in 1890 and providing services to over 1,700 members, the New Jersey Library Association (NJLA) is the oldest and largest library organization in the state.
NJLA advocates for the advancement of library services for New Jersey residents, provides continuing education and networking opportunities for librarians, supports the principles of intellectual freedom, and promotes access to library materials for all.
An initiative of NJLA, I Love NJ Libraries is designed to keep New Jersey residents informed about what’s happening in their libraries. The primary goals are to: provide residents with information regarding access, events, materials, and services available at libraries in New Jersey; connect residents and library advocates with statistics and stories that support their efforts to advocate on behalf of New Jersey libraries; and inform residents of the key issues affecting New Jersey libraries.