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In Comcast’s hometown, the chasm between internet haves and have-nots looks intractable, new census data shows

December 12, 2018

Nicetown-Tioga Library manager Debra E. Johnson sees daily the lack of computers and high-speed internet access in her impoverished corner of Philadelphia: People hungry for access hang outside the library door to tap into the branch’s WiFi. Others rush to the library’s public-access terminals to go online for pay stubs while children peck away at homework.
“They usually come in to look for jobs” on one of eight public-access computers, Johnson said. At her tidy branch on Broad Street near Erie Avenue 6,000 to 7,000 people use computers a month, more than double the number of books checked out.
New census data released last week confirms what many in the city have long suspected: Big swaths of Philadelphia are nearly off the grid, with minimal access to fast internet services in their homes.
Policy officials say the disparity between those with internet access and those without has become another nexus of inequality in American society because so much economic activity now occurs online.
Across the United States in 2017, the national broadband penetration rate by household was 83.5 percent in 2017. And in the Philadelphia suburbs, including South Jersey, it was 88.1 percent.
In Philadelphia, the rate was 71.6 percent, the second-lowest among the 25 largest cities.
The city’s internet penetration rate actually fell 2.7 percentage points between 2016 and 2017 for both wired services like Comcast and wireless data plans.
Philadelphia was the only large city to record a decline in internet access, the Inquirer’s analysis found.
Just around the corner from Johnson’s library is a neighborhood of 4,000 rowhouses where only one in four residences, or 25 percent, had access to the internet through a broadband connection, the new data show. Overall, the entire Tioga-Nicetown neighborhood had Philadelphia’s lowest internet penetration rate by household: 37.1 percent.
Fairhill, a neighborhood traumatized by poverty and violent crime like Tioga-Nicetown, had the second-lowest access, with 41.4 percent of connected households.
Wealthier parts of Philadelphia fared more favorably, the data showed. Neighborhoods with internet penetrations of slightly more than eight in 10 homes, or at least as good as the national average, were Center City, Northern Liberties/Fishtown, Manayunk, Roxborough, Chestnut Hill, and Fairmount/Spring Garden.

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